GALION – Beginning July 1, 2020, Ohioans will no longer need to display a front license plate.
State lawmakers agreed to remove the requirement in this year’s transportation budget, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in April. According to the Dayton Daily News, Ohio has required drivers to display a front plate since 1908, except from 1944-1946, when the state wanted to conserve steel during the war effort.
Lawmakers have debated for decades whether or not to keep the front plate requirement, the Columbus Dispatchreported. Those in the auto industry have opposed the law, arguing that front plates drive down the value of vehicles and are not compatible with evolving front-bumper technology. Those in law enforcement have supported the law, claiming that front license plates help officers solve crimes by providing a way to quickly identify suspects.
The law was removed this spring after intense negotiations between state lawmakers, who also considered the gas tax increase and numerous other items in the same bill. Next summer, Ohio will join 19 other states that do not require a front license plate, including all five of its neighbors – Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
For the first time in 73 years, Ohio drivers won’t need a front license plate. How will this change affect local law enforcement, and conversely, those in the auto industry? Richland Source reporters teamed up to find out.
A significant loss in Galion, Ohio
When approaching vehicles head-on, Galion Police Chief Brian Saterfield says his officers’ jobs will be “100 percent harder” beginning in July 2020 when Ohio’s requirement for vehicles to display front license plates is officially dropped.
The requirement was eliminated in the two-year state transportation budget bill, which Gov. Mike DeWine signed in early April. The highlight of the bill was the gas tax hike of 10.5 cents per gallon, and the state’s longtime use of front license plates a casualty of the negotiations.
“It depends on the direction traveling, but every time we’re encountering the front of a vehicle, that makes our jobs that much harder. Our officers will have to turn around to get a license plate number,” Saterfield said.
While the Galion Police Department doesn’t have any equipment that needs replaced or will be rendered obsolete -- and the change doesn’t go into effect until July 1, 2020, allowing more than a year for law enforcement to adapt -- Saterfield is concerned there’s not adequate amount of time for his or any other department in Ohio to effectively adjust.
“It’s a significant loss to law enforcement across the state," he said. "It’s an investigative tool that we lose, and there’s nothing we can do. There’s no real way to prepare for it. That’s the law, and our job is to enforce it."
Officers will still be able to search for the make, model and color of vehicles, but identification of a suspect’s vehicle could take longer without the additional license plate to reference, Saterfield explained.
Crawford County Sheriff Scott Kent agreed. He considered a scenario where an officer could use a license plate scanner in a parking lot when looking for a suspect.
“It’s definitely going to change the way we investigate things,” Kent said. “If we’re looking for a vehicle in a parking lot, and it’s backed into the parking spot so you can’t see its license plate, it’ll increase our time investigating. It’ll take more time. We’ll have to get out and look at it.”
Further, on the road officers are often positioned to spot a front license plate before the back one. Officers will have to rethink how they approach this, too, Kent said. They’ll need to get behind suspicious vehicles to read license plates in some scenarios.
“(Officers) will just have to be aware the front license plate won’t be an option anymore," Kent said. "They’ll need to focus on the rear of the car."
In neighboring Richland County, officers at the Mansfield Police Department (MPD) have similar concerns about the removal of front license plates.
“Both plates were equally valuable,” said Lt. Mike Napier, a training supervisor with MPD. “If the front plates are going away, it will make things harder because we use those plates when we drive and see someone going the other way. We have license plates readers that are aimed at a forward 45-degree angle. Those won’t work in getting the rear plate.”
Napier went as far as to say his division will have to relearn how to do their jobs without the front tags.
“It’ll be one of those things where we’ll look back and be like, 'Man, if only we had the front license plate,'” Napier said.
Further, the department’s patrol officers often use dash cams and security cameras to pick up license plate numbers. Cars without a plate of the front can’t be read.
“It will be harder to do traffic stops,” Napier said. “Or know if we are looking at the suspect until they pass us.”
What car dealerships have to say
Dirk Schluter isn’t just the president of one of the biggest car dealerships in north central Ohio.
He is a life-long automobile enthusiast.
The president of Mansfield Motor Group, Schluter can see both sides of the front license plate debate.
Ohio has required front license plates almost continuously for more than a century — the regulation was suspended briefly during World War II in an effort to conserve steel — and while the law enforcement community is disappointed with the decision, car owners couldn’t be happier.
“From a dealer’s standpoint, we could take it or leave it. We could go either way,” said Schluter, whose family has sold cars in Mansfield for more than 70 years. “From a customer standpoint, some of these higher-end luxury cars and specialty cars, people don’t like the plates on the front.
“From a personal standpoint, it kind of screws up the look of the car if you’ve got a nice car.”
Ohio is one of 36 states that require a front license plate, but none of the states bordering Ohio require front plates. Dealerships doing business across state lines have found it increasingly difficult to sell cars with holes drilled into the front bumpers in states that don’t require front plates.
“Of the states that surround Ohio, none of them that are contiguous — that actually touch our border — require a front license plate,” said Joe Walsh, fixed operations director at Fredericktown Chevrolet. “And so it can make it difficult to sell vehicles across state lines if a vehicle already has a front license plate bracket on it because people from other states don’t want that.”
Drilling holes in bumpers not only drives down resale value. New safety technology (think sensors and cameras that help prevent accidents) is built into a car’s bumpers.
“Vehicles are being made with significant amounts of technology that is housed in the front bumper,” said Zach Doran, president of Ohio Automobile Dealers Association. “And mounting a front license plate on these vehicles, for our dealers, is becoming a lot more like drilling into a computer than it is drilling into a bumper.”
Law enforcement officials have long advocated for front license plates. Schluter can understand why police would like to see the front license plate law remain intact.
“I think the police would like to see the front license plate law stay,” he said. “That way they can see cars coming and going.
“Consumers and law enforcement are at odds and I can understand both sides of it.”
What Ohio lawmakers had to say
Before making its way to Gov. DeWine’s desk, the state’s transportation budget bill was passed 70-27 by the Ohio House of Representatives and went on to clear the Ohio Senate 22-10.
Mark Romanchuk, representative for the 12th district of Ohio, said he did not vote for the Transportation Budget Bill due to several of the provisions on the bill.
“I voted ‘no’ because there were several things I didn’t like about it,” he said. “There were a lot of reasons I voted ‘no.’ There was a gas tax increase on there, too. The (license plate) was one of about 100 provisions, but I voted no on the whole thing, so in a way I voted against that.”
He said he’s spoken with law enforcement about the license plate issue before.
“I understand it like this, I was talking with an Ohio State Trooper who told me it’s like seeing with one eye closed. It’s a lot harder,” Romanchuk said.
That being said, Romanchuk predicted local law enforcement will have no issues adjusting to the new reality. He imagines they’ll communicate with other states that have earlier discontinued front license plates.
Romanchuk added he understands the new law will be great news from the perspective of Ohio’s car dealers.
“Because we require two license plates, it was a bit of an ordeal for car dealers who would take cars across state lines,” he said. “Let’s say there’s a used car from Ohio that is being brought to Michigan. Now, (without a front plate), you have holes in the bumper.”
State senate president Larry Obhof emphasized this, too.
“A majority of states don’t have front license plates now, so this is really just catching up with what other states are doing,” he said.
Obhof said many constituents -- most vocally, those in the auto industry -- have asked for the change over the years.
“Frequently we hear about the issue from auto dealers,” Obhof said. “Actually in our area, Scott Harris of Bill Harris Auto reached out to me, but a significant number of them across the state have said it makes it more difficult to trade vehicles with dealers in other states because other states don’t require them.”
“If you purchase a car from out of state or if you are a dealer trading cars out of state, you have to actually put a bracket on. It is a costly process -- not a significant cost in the grand scheme of things, but it does take time and cost resources.”
Like Romanchuk, Obhof acknowledged that historically, members of the law enforcement community have not supported the change. In response to those concerns, he noted that as a Gov. DeWine has expressed interest in looking for alternatives law enforcement officers can use in place of existing scanners that read license plates as cars drive by.
“We’re going to have a committee look at that over the next 12 months -- what are our alternatives that are less costly and less obtrusive for the vehicle owner?” Obhof said.
The change is one the Ohio General Assembly has been considering for some time.
“This is something we’ve seen a number of times,” Obhof said. “In just about every transportation budget since I first joined the legislature in 2011, one or the other chamber has tried to include a provision like this, so it’s been a long-standing issue.”
What tipped the scales this time? Largely, Obhof said, it was a result of changes in the members of the general assembly. An overall feeling that the budget should be passed may also have played a role, he said.
“In the grand scheme of a $9 billion transportation budget that included other issues like the gas tax, this was part of those discussions but not the most significant,” Obhof said.
Obhof emphasized the budget guaranteed significant additional funding not only for The Ohio Department of Transportation to improve the state’s roads and bridges but also for local governments.
Each county will receive an estimated $3,967,041 in 2020 and $4,011,374 in 2021.
How Butler, Pennsylvania has fared without front license plates
Butler County, Pennsylvania’s Sheriff Michael Slupe has never been able to rely on front license plates. The Keystone state doesn’t require them and never has, to the best of Slupe’s memory.
“In PA, we’re just used to not having it,” he said in an April interview. “And our scanning technology goes beyond the license plate anyways.”
He explained that license plate readers are mounted in a way that allows officers to read license plates, whether vehicles are driving towards or away from a police cruiser, and other technology allows the Butler County Sheriff’s Office to hone in on bumper stickers or other features to identify suspicious vehicles.
Still, he can relate to local law enforcement’s concerns.
“It’s almost like when Pennsylvania said, there’ll be no more registration stickers. If there was an expiration date, that gave me a reason to pull someone over, but now I’d have to run the plate before pulling someone over,” Slupe said.
The small plastic stickers for the corner of license plates were eliminated in November 2013, as a “significant cost savings for taxpayers” after a study found the stickers had “no impact on vehicle registration compliance,” according to PennDOT’s website.
Since put into effect, it’s added an extra step for officers, but they’ve adjusted, Slupe said.
“Law enforcement has dealt with it. There’s a time of adjustment, and they may not like it, but it’s law. You just adjust, that’s all,” Slupe said. “Would it be nice if the legislature listened to the police a little more? Yes, but everybody wants to save money.”
How officers in Adrian, Michigan responded to the removal of front license plates in 1981
Ohio isn’t the first state to abolish the front license plate after formerly requiring it. States like Michigan have already went through this transition.
Ohio’s neighbor to the north made the switch more than three decades ago. Michigan had required two plates since 1957, but started requiring only one license plate per vehicle in 1981.
Laurence Van Alstine, deputy chief of the Adrian Police Department in Michigancan still remember back in 1976, when the state came out with red, white and blue license plates for its bicentennial. Though only 9-years-old then, he remembers them being on the front of cars. Just five years later, the law was changed.
Now 52 years old, Van Alstine has never been able to rely front license plates to identify vehicles. He’s been working in law enforcement for 30 years, so they haven’t been required during his time with the police. He has been deputy chief in Adrian -- a city of 21,000 -- since 2009.
“In some ways, you get half as many opportunities to identify a car, because you’ve gotta see the back or you don’t get the plate. We just get behind them,” Van Alstine said in an April interview.
He explained that officers are trained to aim laser speed detection tools towards where the front license plate would be, whether or not the vehicle has one.
“It makes a great reflector when you have one, but it works just as good when you don’t, because right behind that plastic is metal. So it’s coming back. It’s just a good way to explain to somebody where to aim. It makes no difference to us,” Van Alstine said.
“I suppose if you have the automated license plate readers, the LPRs, you might be able to get those off the front as well. We don’t have them, so I don’t know how fast they will pick up. If you’re moving in opposite directions in traffic, I don’t know if they’ll pick up or not.”
And when searching parking lots for vehicles, he’s found that people will back into parking spots to hide their plates, but it sometimes works to law enforcement’s advantage.
“One of the things we notice, and it sorts itself out in a way – because we don’t have front plates, people will back their cars in so we can’t see their plate. But what does that do? It draws attention to your car,” Van Alstine said. “If you go to a nice hotel, you see people just pull in and park. When you go to a seedy motel, people back in because they don’t want you to see their plate.
“Well, what does that tell me? Now, I really want to look at that plate. So we get out and look. You have to work a little bit harder, but it tends just to draw attention, more so than anything else.”
Van Alsine is optimistic that Ohio officers will be able to adapt.
“Well, I gotta tell you, we just got legalized marijuana and that’s the biggest change I’ve seen in 30 years. And the people have spoken, it’s legal, and so it’s off our plate,” he said.
“So I’m sure that the law enforcement people in Ohio will figure it out quickly. Law enforcement’s constantly changing. And it’s constantly changing, not based on what we want, but what your legislature wants. You know, they’re used to getting told ‘no’ or that things are going to change. They’ll adapt. They’ll figure it out.”
Reporters Curt Conrad, Noah Jones, Grant Pepper and Courtney McNaull contributed to this story.