Common Tread

Preventing motorcycle crimes... with larger license plates?

Mar 21, 2018

As scooter crime becomes increasingly problematic in urban areas around the world, governments are trying anything to control the outbreaks.

In the Philippines, a recent bill proposed a new solution: just make the license plates really big.

The plan, which was recently approved by transportation committees in their House of Representatives, would require significantly larger license plates for all two-wheelers in an attempt to more easily identify criminals on bikes (presumably after way too much of this). The Senate already approved the bill in 2017. If passed into law, Filipino riders would have a transitional period to switch to the new style. 

Just how much larger are the proposed replacements? It’ll be up to the Land Transportation Office to decide the specifics, but the bill mandates that the plates be legible to the naked eye from no less than 40 feet away (double the distance of a typical cover-an-eye-and-read-the-letters test at your eye doctor). Each region will get its own distinct plate colors so police can tell at a glance where a vehicle is registered. 

Of course, Filipino riders have already voiced their opposition to the move. Bigger plates have all kinds of implications. Most tail mounting points aren’t designed to carry giant license plates, which could lead to issues like plates falling off or worse. They’re also concerned that the government hasn’t examined the aerodynamic effects of a big sheet of metal hanging off the back fender. Other riders believe the larger plates won’t stop crime in the first place, since criminals have already demonstrated that they don’t mind riding hot bikes or swapping plates. 

Like the Filipino opposition, many U.S. riders will balk at the idea of moving to larger plates. We take the standard four-inch-by-eight-inch plate for granted, but American motorcycle license plates weren’t always that small, or even standardized. Old Pennsylvanian plates were larger than current issue and had a nice silhouette of the state around the outside trim.

An old Pennsylvania plate next to a new one. Photo by Lemmy.

You’ll sometimes find them with multiple pairs of bolt holes across the top, since neither plates nor mounts were standardized in those days. Tennessee took the state-as-plate idea to the next level by issuing plates… shaped like Tennessee. And going back to the very dawn of motorcycling, license numbers were just hand-painted on your fender. None of these, however, are as radical as the changes proposed in the Philippines. 

Look at the silhouette of the plate, and "TENN" seems redundant. State Trooper Plates image.

If you can’t tell, I’m not convinced that bigger license plates are the solution to two-wheeled crime. The struggle to eradicate it is a conversation we’ve covered before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again. New technologies like plate scanners, bike trackers, and coordinated police tactics are being used by governments around the world with mixed results. Low-tech solutions have their place too, but I'm thinking larger plates will mostly protect riders from mud.