A few months ago, a blurb in the Omaha World-Herald caught me by surprise: A Nebraska license plate won an award from the Automotive License Plate Collectors Association* for being the “Best New Plate of the Year“.
*You know the old saying about how there is a person out there for everyone? I think it is safe to say the existence of an Automobile License Plate Collectors Association convincingly proves that there is a club or organization for everyone too.
My initial thought? “I know it’s not April Fools Day, but there is no possible way this can be true.”
Why? Because as a lifelong Nebraska resident, I have come to accept ugly, uninspired license plates full of visual clichés. When a new license plate comes out in Nebraska, it is guaranteed to have at least one of the following images, most of which do not communicate a very exciting and vibrant image of Nebraska:
- The outline of the state – “In case you forgot what Nebraska looks like.”. (On a positive note, recent state outline plates are now geographically correct, instead of the smushed versions from the 1960s).
- A covered wagon – “As you drive through Nebraska, we’d love it if you think of our state as the same barren prairie the pioneers passed through 200 years ago.”
- A windmill – “We have farms, and it’s really windy. Just don’t ask why we are so far behind Iowa in wind energy production.”
- A sunset – “Sure there are no mountains, no beaches, and not much else to look at. But every night the sun goes down, and there usually isn’t much blocking the view.”
- Chimney Rock – (For those who don’t know, Chimney Rock is a tall, somewhat phallic shaped rock formation in the western part of the state. It was used as a landmark on the Oregon Trail) “Yeah, what you want to do is go west until you see the giant rock ____ and then hang a right towards Oregon. But be careful – you don’t want to catch dysentery!”
- Some (or all) of the above. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
But then I saw one of these U.P. plates while I was driving around town. I was stunned by how nice it looked. I could not believe that something that attractive came out of Nebraska, a state that is rather obsessed with their license plates*, but has a long history of duds, disasters, and controversy.
*A good example of that obsession is the county designations on the plates. As all Nebraskans know, the first digit (or two) on the plate tells the world what county you’re from**. This is a great system because with a little knowledge, you tailor your road rage to the driver’s county and/or hometown (“Go back to 47 county, you rube!”)
**Live in Nebraska long enough, and certain truths about the county numbers (and the people driving those cars) start to reveal themselves. For example:
- Seward County must really ticket speeders, because the slowest drivers come from 16 county. The worst car to be stuck behind on a hilly two-lane highway is a gold Buick LeSabre from 16 county.
- Lincoln residents know during the state basketball tournaments they need to be on the lookout for out-of-towners (usually with a county in the 60s, 70s, or 80s) driving the wrong way on the one way streets in downtown.
- I don’t really know why, but for the longest time if a car was from 3 county (Gage), you could practically guarantee it was not an import. Sadly, that has slipped in the past 5-10 years to where imports are almost the rule, and not the rare exception.
When the county designations for the three largest counties (Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy) were removed for a generic ABC-123 format in 2002, you would have thought the state decided to cancel Christmas as Nebraskans lamented their loss of individuality, and the smaller counties (i.e. the other 90) feared their numbers would be the next to go.
To help calm the controversy, the DMV announced that you could keep your 1, 2, or 59 prefix if you made it part of a personalized license plate (for an extra $30). Twelve years later, if you see somebody who still has a 1, 2, or 59 on their car you can be sure the driver is probably in their late seventies.
But the greatest example of why Nebraska’s license plates continue to be a multi-car pile up happened in 2009.
A good idea (allowing Nebraskans to vote for their next license plate) started out on the wrong foot as the four finalists (preserved for posterity here) were amateur works that were at best, underwhelming. Graphic designers in the state hated the idea that one of the most valuable – and widely known – pieces of branding in the state was left to amateurs who seemingly used little more than Microsoft Paint. The professionals felt they deserved a chance to use their skills, without being asked to give away their work. I agree – Nebraska should look to get all of the help it can get when selling the state to potential tourists, businesses, and residents.
And then things went from bad to worse.
The online vote for the four plates was nearing completion when the site College Humor caught wind of the vote and decided to have some fun. They encouraged their followers to “vote design 2 so Nebraskans get boring license plates“. Design 2 was, in my opinion (apparently as well as the editors at College Humor) the worst of the worst.
Once College Humor’s readers started voting, the other contenders never stood a chance. Ultimately, the state realized they had been had*, and declared the second place finisher the winner.
*There is a separate embarrassing back story to the government’s response, (which you can read here) that added a whole other layer to the ridiculousness. If you’ve stuck with me this long, you might as well get a chuckle out of it.
The second place finisher (and current Nebraska license plate) seeks to take Nebraska license plates to a new level. One free of covered wagons, sunsets, and windmills. Instead, we are introduced to two new symbols known only to Nebraskans: our state bird and state flower. To the rest of the country, there is some random yellow bird sitting on what appears to be a weed with yellow flowers.
The only good thing about these? We only have to deal with them for another 18 months. After that? Well, the Union Pacific plates have me optimistic that our next license plates will be something I’ll be proud to put on my vehicle.
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(Author’s note: Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post? Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge? Like clicking on links? These questions are all answered here.)