January 16th, 2020 at 2:40 pm
Number plates in the UK are yellow and white because that is what the law of the land decrees. But it didn’t start out that way.
Early registration plates
By the turn of the last century, there were around 5,000 motor vehicles in Great Britain sharing unfit roads with horses, cyclists and pedestrians and the government realised that some sort of regulation was called for. Numbers of cars were continuing to rise and so the Motor Car Act was passed in 1903 to start to regulate this new world and one of the provisions this statute contained concerned vehicle registrations. Cars were required to display marks in a prominent location to reflect a new process of registration which was provided by County and Borough Councils.
Fast forward half a century to the 1960s and the system was starting to creak and groan under the strain of motoring Britain. The Second World War had applied the brakes for nearly a decade particularly with the rationing of fuel but once Britain had recovered from post-war austerity, more and more people were buying cars, once only the province of the rich. But it wasn’t just the increasing numbers of cars that were the problem.
When people moved house, their logbook details had to be transferred geographically to their new location. The amount of paper traffic that was being generated was simply too much for the system to handle. Thus, in 1965, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency came into being located in Swansea and supported by 81 local DVLA offices. And then in 1973, the appearance of the registration plates was also changed, for the first time since 1903. This is when the standard arrangement of reflective plates – black on white at the front and black on yellow at the rear – came into being. The reflective element was to help unlit vehicles be more visible at night. The new regulations also defined the shape and size of the characters which appeared on the plate, the beginning of total uniformity. The colours of white and yellow have existed ever since.
Some more interesting facts about the black and yellow colour scheme
- The colour difference according to the DVLA is to make it possible for drivers to see, at a glance, whether they are looking at the front or rear of a vehicle, i.e. whether it is likely to be driving towards them or away from them
- White provides the best contrast unsurprisingly to black lettering and yellow was chosen next because it provides the second-best contrast
- Military vehicles are exempt from the standard registration plate legislation even though they do use UK roads to travel from one base to another. They use black plates with white lettering which are non-reflective so that they can diminish the chances of being targeted by laser-guided weapons when in the theatre of war
- Other countries don’t agree with this colour scheme, in France, for instance, both front and rear plates are white with black lettering although their system did mirror the British one until 2009
- The other reason why the rear number plate is yellow in the UK is that it is illegal to show a white light to the rear of any vehicle and this includes reflectors as well as direct lights. The fact that the reversing light is white and permitted is because this is usually showing in conjunction with a red light
- Using other colour number plates is illegal although, for the first time since 1973 when the law changed, green plates could soon be making an appearance. The government is consulting widely at the moment about the format for a new, green number plate which is going to be awarded to electric vehicles. This could be a totally green plate or a standard plate with just a green bar at the side
Hop over the pond and you can find quite a different status quo in the States when it comes to registration plates and one which makes the UK system of white and yellow seem very uninspiring. In the UK, registration plates stay with the car but in the US, they follow the driver and are issued by individual states. Each state has its own design, there are varied colours and an overwhelming choice of logos which drivers can choose to raise money for local causes or projects dear to their hearts such as cancer research initiatives.
American plates are some of the most colourful in the world and have become highly collectable particularly the vintage or antique versions. For some real enthusiasts, these plates are aluminium works of art. It’s hard to imagine anyone becoming quite so excited about UK plates. British people are confined to personalised or private registrations if they want to raise the excitement levels. In the States, the increase in quality graphics plus the influence of the internet has meant plate collecting is as popular as stamp collecting now. But is this all about to change?
Companies in the US and the UK are now producing digital number plates, these are called the Rplate and iPlate. Very plain in contrast to what we are used to, these plates can display information other than just the car’s registration. If a car is stolen then the registration plate will display this status, that is until some handy e-geek works out to hack it or disable it. The plate can even alert the emergency services in the event of a car crash. These plates also digitalise a lot of the bureaucracy and paperwork surrounding car registrations meaning that motorists can do much of the process online rather than in person at their local Department of Motor Vehicles or the DVLA. Rather ironically, a digital plate would not radically change the existing system in the UK certainly as far as appearance is concerned but the Americans would be sad to see much of their motoring heritage relegated to the walls of burger bars and diners.