Bad outweighs good on SC's specialty plates

South Carolina's specialty license plates aren't so special anymore.

The state now issues 370 different plates. A bill in the legislature could take that number to 701, The Associated Press reports.

It's time to return license plates to their primary job -- identifying a vehicle.

Law enforcement officials complain that specialty plates hinder that important function. The problem is multiplied because we're not the only state doing this. A survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Associations found that Illinois had more than 300 different types of plates, Virginia more than 200 and North Carolina more than 100.

Most vehicles in South Carolina do carry the standard plate. At the end of September, the Department of Motor Vehicles had issued 2.8 million of its regular plates. The next favorite is the no-fee plate with the saying "In God We Trust"; 435,000 of those have been issued. Other specialty favorites are plates supporting scholarships to the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.

A co-sponsor of the bill that would increase the number of specialty plates, Rep. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired police officer, said he wished law enforcement would come out more forcefully against the specialty plates.

So why sponsor a bill that would increase the number? The answer probably lies in this observation from Pitts: They're popular, and he constantly gets requests for more of them.

Co-sponsor Rep. Gary Smith, R-Greenville, said the bill should improve the fee structure, allowing the DMV to recover its costs, and bring an end to the expanding number of plates.

"This should be it," Smith said. "At least, that was the intent."

The bill -- which passed the House and was amended by the Senate in June -- would increase to $6,800 the amount a group would have to pay to get a specialty plate made. Under the law now, a group must submit 400 prepaid applications or pay a deposit of $4,000.

Fees are waived for many military-related plates, but can reach up to $100 on top of registration costs if, for example, a driver wants to show support for the Civil War era H.L. Hunley submarine, The Associated Press reports.

The problem is that these plates have become fundraisers for nonprofit entities, as well as a way to identify yourself. Among those being added with this bill are parents and spouses of active-duty overseas veterans, retired Highway Patrol officers and "coon hunters." Others signal a love of beach music and libraries.

Perhaps the only hope for stopping this runaway train is law enforcement officials' objections.

There is another way for vehicle owners to pay homage to their high school or college alma maters, send a message about their support of libraries or let everyone on the road know they are a teacher. And it doesn't interfere with a police officer's or a witness's ability to identify a vehicle.

It's called a bumper sticker.