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Fun with number plates

Once upon a time when travelling on a long trip with children, you might have amused them with number plates. You could look at car registration plates and try to find each letter in the alphabet, starting with “A”. Another game was to try and make six-word slogans using each letter and number on the number plate in front.

Times have changed and children have iPads and mobiles to play with. But you don’t have to be a child to wonder why Canberran number plates always start with “Y”.

Why “Y”?

The manager of Road User Services, Access Canberra, says it all goes back to 1948 when the Australian Transport Advisory Council decided to allocate alphanumeric plates to each state and territory in Australia. NSW was allocated AAA-000 to FZZ-999 and ACT, because it is considerably smaller, received the single letter “Y”.

The question is, what made the Council choose the letter “Y” rather than another letter? Some people say it’s related to the Y-plan of Canberra, which emerged in the 50s and 60s but, in fact, it’s just a co-incidence.

The first “Y” plate came out in 1968: it was YAB-000. A few years ago, a popular number plate, according to number plate enthusiasts who know these things, was YOB-0.

Custom plates

Of course, custom plates are becoming much more popular today because of their potential selling value. In 2015, vehicle owners in the ACT spent $950,000 buying more than 3,300 custom or personalised plates. This was 45% more plates than sold a decade earlier.

There are clear rules about what is acceptable in custom plates and what is not. Authorities are always mindful of how number plates can cause offence. For example, Road User Services recently rejected ONBAIL, POLICE, DEATH and DRUNK.

  • In the US, a woman successfully sued for discrimination after having her New Jersey plate 8THEIST rejected, then discovering that her test request for BAPTIST was approved
  • In WA, the Department of Transport skipped the “F” range of number plates and went on to the “G” series.  The “F” series is issued only as a customised number plate.

When considering a personalised plate application, transport officers look at the actual and potential meaning to different audiences as well as how the number plate will read when viewed in reverse through a rear view mirror.

Vehicle owners in NSW can order a personalised or custom plate from Service NSW.

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