It’s not legal, but Doug Klein says he hasn’t put front license plates on his cars in 30 years. He’s willing to risk getting a ticket to keep it that way.
Klein is the owner of American Dream Machines in downtown Des Moines, a dealership with an inventory that includes such classic cars as a gleaming red 1957 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and a sleek black 1995 Ferrari 348 Spider.
“I don’t see the logic of someone spending $50,000 to $100,000 for a beautiful car, and then you have to slap a license plate on the front,” Klein said.
The Des Moines Register reports that the Iowa House is considering House File 540, which would require only a rear license plate on vehicles. The Iowa Department of Transportation says the change would save more than $500,000 annually.
But Iowa law enforcement officials have pushed back against the bill, raising concerns that the absence of a front license plate can hinder police work.
State Rep. Josh Byrnes, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he’s received more emails in support of getting rid of one license plate than he did from both sides last year when the Legislature raised the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon.
“People want this thing gone,” Byrnes said.
Nationwide, 19 states do not require a front license plate.
But law enforcement officers say having front and rear license plates is important for criminal investigations, both for tracking vehicles and surveillance camera recordings. Law officers also say having two plates on a car is important when they issue Amber Alerts to seek public cooperation when a child has been abducted and is in danger.
“Not having that front plate cuts the chances of seeing the suspect’s license plates in half. We think it would be a step backward for public safety,” said Maj. John Godar of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, who is also president of the Iowa State Sheriffs & Deputies Association.
The Iowa DOT hasn’t taken a position on the one-plate debate. But eliminating the front license plate would prevent people from avoiding detection of unregistered vehicles by splitting plate pairs on two vehicles, said Mark Lowe, director of the DOT’s Motor Vehicle Division. Although if pairs are split, only one plate would have a registration tag.
The Iowa Automobile Dealers Association officially supports the one-plate legislation, in part because new car bumpers don’t have holes drilled to install license plate brackets. Sales representatives need to inform new car buyers that Iowa law requires a front license plate and then get permission to install it.
“For a lot of people, the front of a car typically looks much cleaner, much better, without a front license plate,” said Jim Usgaard, general manager of Willis Auto Campus in Clive, which sells seven brands of new vehicles and all types of pre-owned cars.
In addition, many new vehicles are designed with bumpers that cause low-hanging license plates to strike curbs, damaging the plates, said Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association. He noted Iowa law already permits car dealers to demonstrate vehicles with a single dealer plate, and cars from states with one-plate laws can operate legally in Iowa.
But there’s not much sympathy for those one-plate arguments from legislators with backgrounds in law enforcement.
State Rep. Clel Baudler, who is a retired state trooper, recalled how he would closely inspect vehicles without a front plate when they would pull into an interstate highway rest area.
“If there are a bunch of bugs on the back plate, the car is probably stolen, because the plate was taken off the front of a vehicle,” he said.
State Sen. Kevin Kinney, a retired investigator for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s found that front plates often are more visible to surveillance cameras than rear plates, which frequently are mounted on the back of the car’s trunk lid.
In response to critics, Byrnes said he’s hoping to forge a compromise that would exempt owners of cars and trucks at least 25 years old from needing to install two license plates. Another idea is to allow people with high-priced cars to pay an extra fee, perhaps $100, for the right to have just one license plate.
“If you can afford an expensive car, you could afford the fee,” Byrnes said. “I have talked with people who own Corvettes or whatever and asked, `Would you pay for this?’ They have said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I think we are making some headway.”
But Baudler, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, said while he’s OK with allowing one plate for vintage cars, he doesn’t like the idea of buyouts for well-heeled owners of newer vehicles.
“I understand that people don’t want to display a front plate on their Corvette, but it’s not good policy,” Baudler said.
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