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No nail polish on license plates, please

Posted by Bill Griffith  October 13, 2010 06:56 PM

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(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

My car looked kind of drab the other day — and that was after I'd vacuumed it out, washed it, cleaned up the wheels and done the windows inside and out.

The paint was shiny, but something wasn't quite right.

Then I realized what was wrong. My license plates had lost their shine over time. In fact, it's fair to say they're getting so difficult to read that, after another winter exposed to the elements, they might be in bad enough shape to keep the car from passing inspection next spring.

If my red-on-white plates were a vehicle, they'd almost be antiques (25 years old). Alas, they're still a couple of years short, having been issued back in 1987.

If they were one of the green-on-white single-plate types, I could take that plate to any full-service Registry of Motor Vehicles branch to be replaced with a set (front and back) of red-on-white plates at no cost.

"Law enforcement agencies prefer front and rear plates for identification purposes," says registry spokesman Ann Dufresne in explaining the RMV exchange policy.

What's happening is the paint on the aging plates is losing its reflective capacity.

"The law is that the plates should be visible from 60 feet," says Dufresne.

This is the point where many of us (including me) think, "Why not touch up our present plates with paint or nail polish?"

"That's a no-no," says Dufresne. "It's considered defacing a plate. I once had to write a letter to the editor of the Worcester Telegram pointing that out after reading a piece in the paper telling how a reporter's husband had the solution of using green nail polish to touch up a plate. They ended up replacing it."

The cost of replacing a red-numbered plate is $10 per plate.

"We don't have large numbers of people being rejected at inspection stations," says Dufresne. "I suspect that's because the inspectors are giving drivers a warning to get the plate replaced before having the car inspected."

There are a couple of other considerations here:

1. Driving with an illegible plate gives law enforcement agencies reason to stop your vehicle. At minimum you'd face a $35 citation for having a dirty or obstructed plate.

2. If you have a vanity or low-number plate, you may want to order replacements ahead of time at $10 per plate.

3. Do you have a frame on your plate? If so, it can't cover any of the informational parts of the plate such as the state name or expiration-year sticker.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
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