License plates with few digits have mysterious allure in some states

Tuesday, August 16th 2005, 10:58 am
By: News On 6

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Most people outside Rhode Island don't understand John Raiche's fascination with low-numbered license plates.

After all, in most places, people who want a low-numbered plate can get it just by paying for a vanity plate. But in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, Delaware and Washington, D.C., it takes more _ like knowing someone in high places, or more recently, going to extraordinay steps to get one.

``A low-numbered plate is clearly viewed as a status symbol,'' said Raiche, 40, of Coventry, who has three of them already. ``A great number of people want to have them. I guess it's like anything else. When you want something and you can't have it, you want it more.''

This fall, Rhode Island officials expect to dole out more than 100 plates with two, three and four numbers. Raiche is one of hundreds of people who entered a lottery to try to get one.

Low-digit devotees say the plates are a status symbol: Owners are either important enough to get a plate from politicians, or they come from an important family that got a low-number plate years ago.

Massachusetts manufactured the first license plates in 1903, starting with number one, and other states soon followed. Low numbers became more rare as more cars were registered, and states added letters to their plate numbers, according to Jeff Minard, a license plate historian for the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association.

``There were always businessmen who, even in the very beginning, thought a low number was a good thing,'' Minard said.

Soon, state officials started claiming the low-numbered plates for themselves _ plate 1 went to the governor, plate 2 went to the lieutenant governor and so on. Doling out other low-numbered plates became a way to reward supporters, Minard said.

And there were benefits to the low-numbered plates.

``As people drove around with these low numbers, and it was the big cars in the big neighborhoods, what sort of happened was that the police, sometimes, if this guy ran a stoplight and he had a number 10 on his car, they let him go, because he was connected,'' Minard said. ``Low numbers began to get favoritism.''

In these five places, plates are registered to people, rather than to vehicles, allowing owners to keep them for years. In addition, they have not phased out the low numbers, as has been the case in most states, leading to a market for low-numbered plates, license plate experts said.

In Rhode Island and Delaware, people could even will their plate to family members.

In 1994, a Delaware resident paid $182,500 for plate number 9. In Rhode Island, two brothers went to court in 1983 over their late father's three-digit plate. In Massachusetts, a recent auction of low-numbered plates raised more than $1 million for the state's 9/11 fund.

In 2003, the administration of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was accused of handing out low-numbered license plates as political favors. In Washington, D.C., the mayor and city council still hold power over low-number plates.

But government officials have mostly stopped handing out license plates as a way of rewarding political friends, according to Richard Dragon, a Warwick, R.I., resident and author of ``Registered in R.I.,'' a book about license plates.

``Back in the '50s, '60s, '70s, when low-numbers really became an object of fascination for some people, that was just the only way to get them,'' Dragon said.

In recent years, the fervor for plates has subsided, he said, because governments have attempted to make things more equitable through plate auctions and lotteries.

In 1995, Rhode Island began using a lottery system to eliminate patronage, after Gov. Bruce Sundlun commandeered plate number 9 and gave it to his wife.

David Darlington, who supervised the first lotteries when he was Gov. Lincoln Almond's director of constituent affairs, said people still approach him to see if he can help them get their hands on one.

``I bet a week doesn't go by when somebody doesn't ask me how they can get a low-digit plate,'' Darlington said.

Salvatore Santoro, 79, of North Providence, has entered every lottery in the past decade, and he's never won a low-numbered plate. He hopes his turn will come during the lottery this fall.

``Everyone in Rhode Island wants low-numbered plates. I'm not an exception,'' he said, though he acknowledges that a low number doesn't mean as much as it used to.

``It used to be prestige,'' he said. ``Now everybody's brother's got them. You could never get them. Now, you put your name in the lottery, and you get them.''

Still, he wants one so badly that he's entering all his relatives' names in the lottery, too.

Even Darlington has gotten caught up in the low-number fever.

``All of the years I did that, I sort of felt bad for all the people who were consumed,'' he said. ``I think I may send a card in for this lottery.''