I've Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

I’ll admit, I was a little conflicted about writing up this simple idea, because, really, how much do I want to make license plates easier to read for police? I mean, there’s plenty of good reasons to do that I suppose, but, well, I’m just not sure I’d want mine to always super legible. But that’s no way to think! So, what the hell, let me just explain this basic idea because it really could benefit everyone.

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I was noticing that in so many videos people—not just cops or other officials, just normal people— took of nighttime crazy road-ragers or suspected drunk drivers or other very alarming things people were doing in cars, attempts to video the cars in question often ended up with illegible license plates, like this:

Illustration for article titled Ive Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night
Screenshot: Twitter
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The reason is that license plates are designed to be highly reflective, to make them more visible at night, even in situations where a car’s legally-required license plate light is too dim to make the plates legible.

That reflectivity, though, means that when cars are recorded on camera, very often the light reflected off the license plate will be so bright that it blows out the plate’s image, leaving just a bright white rectangle, with no useful information visible.

So, how do we solve this? We need a way for a license plate to be visible at night and yet also able to be recorded on camera if needed, and retain legibility. I’d like to do this all without resorting to stupidly needless complications or expensive electronics like those idiotic e-paper license plates.

For this to work, we need a solution that asks no more complexity or cost from neither car nor license plate. This has to be as cheap and easy as current plates. I think I have an idea how to do just that:

Illustration for article titled Ive Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night
Graphic: Jason Torchinsky
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Here’s how I think it can work. License plates are still made the same way, from the same stuff—stamped sheet metal. The difference is that the letters and numbers, instead of just being embossed stampings, are now perforated stampings, still embossed letters, but the inside of those letters are punctured with many, many little holes, like a colander or something.

The metal itself would be matte-finished, with a non-reflective coating, and the conventional license plate light—which, let’s be honest, always kind of sucked at its job, anyway, would be moved to behind the license plate.

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Ideally, the license plate light would be nice and diffused—maybe electroluminescent panels could be used, or even LEDs behind a diffusing panel—nothing fancy needed, really. Bare LEDs would work, too.

The result would be a license plate that in the daytime would look like this:

Illustration for article titled Ive Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night
Graphic: Jason Torchinsky
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See the tiny holes in the characters? At night it would look like this:

Illustration for article titled Ive Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night
Graphic: Jason Torchinsky
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I think, without the whole plate being highly light-reflective and just the characters casting light, there’s a much better chance for legibility when being recorded with a phone or something. If light is shining on the plate, it’ll be legible like normal, and if it’s dark, the backlight will provide the needed illumination, and any gradient in between should be legible as well.

This wouldn’t increase the cost of license plates, it wouldn’t require radical changes to cars, and, in a pinch, you could strain pasta through a license plate.

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I suppose I should try and modify an old license plate to test this; it should be easy enough with a hammer and punch, right?

UPDATE: Huh. It looks like I was barely scooped by these jikō-shiki” (字光式) Japanese license plates that first appeared in 1970 as optional license plates.

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Illustration for article titled Ive Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night
Photo: Drive2.ru (Fair Use)

These use a light box behind the plate and transparent green plastic letters. While I think my perforated version is still cheaper, these sure do look cool.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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Defund License Plate Scanners.