How Washington State Enforces the Collectors License Plate Law

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Motorists in Washington State can obtain collector plates that do not require month/year tabs to be displayed, but also should not be used for “regular vehicle-like transportation under full license,” or “for commercial purposes or to carry a load.”

Licensing Department

Question: As I understand it, cars with collector vehicle license plates cannot be used for regular transport, for commercial purposes or to carry a load. I regularly observe collectible plated vehicles in grocery stores and home supply stores. Last week I camped next to a vintage VW van. Is this a non-priority execution situation?

Answer: My first new car was a 1991 Toyota Tercel. It gave us many affordable and reliable miles and exceeded its expected life. If he still had it, I could register it with collector’s plates. That doesn’t make it a classic.

The law allows vehicles that are at least 30 years old and in good working order to be registered as collectors’ vehicles. The advantage of registering your car as a classic car is that collector vehicle license plates are valid for the life of the vehicle. Yes, you read that right. You will never have to pay for your tabs again.

The trade-off is that a collectible vehicle has limits. The law states that they “may only be used to participate in club activities, exhibitions, tours, parades and occasional pleasure driving”. I will note that the law does not specifically prohibit commercial purposes or carrying a load, but the Licensing Department interprets it that way. It seems reasonable.

You might think a lot of people would be tempted to register their cars as collectibles, but time and wear and tear make this a somewhat self-enforcing law. That Toyota I had, like most 30 year old cars, is probably not on the road anymore. The few cars that last this long usually do so because they are so worth keeping.

Our vehicle tabs help pay for transportation costs, so licensing your car as a collectible and then driving it like a regular car is essentially cheating on your taxes. Where does this fit as an application priority? I’ve asked a lot of cops why they took this job, and so far none of them have said it was because they wanted to collect taxes. This does not mean that there is no enforcement of registration laws, but it is naturally less than some other violations.

As far as I know, the misuse of a collector plate has never been listed as contributing to a traffic accident. But I can tell you the top four contributors to fatal crashes in our state and the percentage of crashes they are involved in:

Deficiency (56%).

Speeding (31%).

No seat belt use (23%).

And distractions (20%).

If you add them up, you get 130%, which sounds like something a motivational speaker would say, but it’s not mathematically possible. Many crashes have more than one high-risk behavior, such that these four factors contribute to 78% of all fatal crashes in our state.

While app decisions shouldn’t be made based on what’s easiest, in this case it works. Impaired driving, speeding, being distracted, and using the seatbelt are all clearly observable behaviors, but if an officer sees a collector plate in a grocery store or campground, who’s to say it’s not not occasional use for fun? Maybe I find joy in driving a vintage car to fetch milk, or I like camping twice a year in my 1967 VW van.

Given limited police resources, it makes sense to focus law enforcement efforts on the most risky behaviors. No one likes getting a speeding ticket, but the latest research confirms that traffic enforcement that targets dangerous behavior saves lives. There are laws we want to enforce because it annoys us that someone gets away with something, and there are laws we want to enforce to intervene in high-risk behavior behind the wheel. I know what I would choose.

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Doug Dahl, Head of Communications at Target Zero, answers questions about traffic laws, safe driving habits and general policing practices every Monday.

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