New vanity tag rule spurs drivers’ creativity

Competition for personalized license plates may be driving some Kansans crazy. A new rule limits personalized messages to one per state, not the longtime one per county.

A new design and a new law are leading to a scramble for messages on personalized license plates in Kansas.

And the competition already has claimed one victim: Eleanor Nelson’s JAYHAWK tag, which has been in the family since Bob “Nellie” Nelson scrambled into the Douglas County Courthouse to claim it as his own 33 years ago.

The plate long cherished by Nellie — a guy known around town as “Ol’ Jayhawk” — now must go away, as will the 41 identical others statewide as part of a new law that limits messages on personalized plates to one for the entire state, instead of the long-allowed one per county. There are 105 counties in Kansas.

“I’m going to save my 50 bucks or whatever it is extra and just get a regular license,” Eleanor Nelson said. “I’ll just get one with numbers, and not even through the alumni association. I’ll just save my money.”

Try again, folks

Here are the 10 most popular personalized license plates in Kansas last year, a list that will change this year after such vanity messages will be limited to one statewide, instead of one per county:

  1. HUSKERS, one in each of 53 counties

  2. JAYHAWK, 43

  3. GITRDUN, 38

  4. CHIEFS, 37

  5. 2FAST4U, 36

  6. SPOILED, 35

  7. SOONERS, 34

  8. BLESSED, 34

  9. MYTOY, 33

  10. REDNECK, 32

Despite such frustrations, the new law and a new issue of personalized plates for 2010 have not put a dent in such business for the Kansas Department of Revenue, which handles vehicle registrations.

Since the new “America’s Heartland” series of tags hit the streets, more than 30,000 Kansans have signed on for personalized plates, said Carmen Alldritt, the state’s director of vehicles.

While that’s far short of the 87,000 personalized plates on the road at the end of last year, she said, the pace for renewals and new issues is ahead of that for the expiring “Buffalo” series, which started in 2005.

Fewer people may be able to drive now with JAYHAWK or other popular messages on their plates, but the biggest limitation to renewals appears to be financial, Alldritt said.

“Money’s tight,” she said. “They don’t want to pay the $46 reservation fee. And some of them just flat don’t like the design.”

Even so, Alldritt said, “We think the number of people who have ordered is just incredible.”

The state opted to prohibit “duplicate” plates, in part, because the department is using a new computer system to coordinate data from county treasurer’s offices, law enforcement agencies and other vehicle-related information systems.

And eliminating the more than 31,000 duplicate plates on the road should help clear things up for the Kansas Highway patrol, county sheriffs and local police, said Freda Warfield, a spokeswoman for the revenue department.

“It’s easier to find one JAYHAWK than it is to find 105 JAYHAWKs,” Warfield said.

Butch Moore, who hadn’t been in the market for a personalized plate until this year, said the new rules almost kept him out.

His first attempt — BEATNIK — already had been claimed by at least one other vehicle owner in the state, so he moved onto another option. Then another. And another.

After repeated attempts online and in person at the Douglas County Courthouse to secure an appropriate message — “I went down there with 20 or 30 different ideas for a license tag,” he said, “but each time they would say, ‘Nope, that one’s already taken” — the Lawrence resident finally found a plate for his 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air.

The winner: KUSTM54.

“I just had to get creative with the spelling,” he said. “They should’ve spelled custom with a ‘k’ anyway.”

In Douglas County, 925 orders have come in so far for personalized plates using the new “America’s Heartland” design, said Paula Gilchrist, county treasurer. A few already are out on the streets, but most will be picked up as registration renewals approach each month through the end of the year.

Gilchrist’s office heard plenty of complaints as word of the message restrictions got out, she said, but many customers have sought out and found alternatives that fit their budgets and personal tastes.

“People are far more creative than I am,” she said.