FOX 11 Investigates: Deteriorating license plates

A deteriorating Wisconsin license plate

(WLUK) -- License plates are supposed to be an easy way to identify who owns a vehicle. But police say it's getting harder and harder to read some plates.

What's happening is some license plates are deteriorating, with fading numbers and peeling paint.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, there are more than 6 million license plates on the road in Wisconsin. There are dozens of different designs. But one type of plate appears to be getting more and more popular: the deteriorating license plate.

"I just happened to notice some of these license plates were deteriorating. I was wondering what was going on," said Dave Carney of Kimberly. "I did see one that looked like it was actually peeling apart. The rest of them look like there's something underneath the coating that is deteriorating. Some of the numbers you can't even read."

Carney noticed the problem earlier this year. He contacted FOX 11 Investigates for answers.

"The thing I want most is an explanation of why it's happening. What is causing this to happen because I've been driving 50 years and this is the first time I've ever noticed license plates deteriorating in the state of Wisconsin," Carney said.

We wanted to find out if anyone else had noticed the issue, so we contacted some of the folks who read license plates for a living.

"We look at license plates every day. It's one of the ways we identify vehicles," said Sgt. Andy Jacobs from the Wisconsin State Patrol.

"It's part of our job to make sure that license plates belong to that car so we're often trying to read that license plate. Sometimes I can be within two car lengths away from that car and I still can't read it," Jacobs said.

FOX 11 Investigates also talked with Officer Jerry Young about it. He's a traffic officer with the Green Bay Police Department.

When asked if this is this something he sees often, Young replied, “Yes. We've been having a lot of issues with plates, with the paint coming off. The colors of the paint fading.”

FOX 11 Investigates asked Young if it has gotten more prevalent over the years.

Young responded, “Yes. Probably over the last three to four years we've really been noticing a lot with the paint coming off the plates, literally, falling off the plates.”

The big question, of course, is why?

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the short answer is age. A spokesperson for the Office of Public Affairs for the DOT says the state has not changed anything about the way the plates are made.

In a statement to FOX 11 Investigates, the Office of Public Affairs wrote, "The industry standard for plate warranty is 5 years, however we’ve see plates that can last 7 to 10 years, sometimes longer.”

The statement goes on to say, “There is no consistent pattern of plates delaminating within the first 5 years. The ones with issues you see on the road are generally 7 years old or older."

That's the same answer Officer Young got when he looked into it.

“I contacted the DMV and they could not give me any reason other than age and weather,” Young said.

State law says that illegible plates do need to be replaced. That means if your plates are wearing away, you could get pulled over.

“A lot of times we'll do that for a courtesy stop and say, 'Here's the deal: your plates are defective. You need to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and get a new set of plates,’” Young said.

If your plates are illegible, you can contact the DMV for replacements. You can either go to the DMV in person or you can order online. There is a small fee for replacement plates. But if your plates are less than five years old and are deteriorating, the state says it will replace them free of charge.


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