The Deciphering Number Plates series visited 11 countries. In all of them, it tried to shed light on the local system in place for number plates and explained intriguing facts associated with them.
Plates on car bumpers are an everyday part of motorists’ lives today. Their origins date back to France. In 1783, King Louis XVI ordered Parisian coachmen to have a badge with their name and address on their carriages. The aim was to reduce crime in the streets of Paris.
The French system, however, only applied to the streets of Paris. The first country to introduce nationwide alphanumeric registration numbers was actually Spain, which adopted its initial number plate system almost 120 years ago (in 1900, to be exact). The very first registration number here was PM-1. It adorned a Clément car and was registered in the capital city of the island of Majorca. However, time marches on, and Spain is now on to its third system.
Out of all the countries presented in the series, the country with the oldest number plate system still in existence is a little further north and a few thousand metres’ elevation higher. That honour goes to Switzerland, where the current system was adopted as far back as 1933 and has remained in effect ever since. However, in some cantons they are starting to run out of possible combinations, so this system may well have to be reformed in the near future.
Britain may be famous for its dreary weather, but its roads are brightened up by two-colour number plates, which are white at the front and yellow at the back. This is a throwback to a 1920s law stipulating that a vehicle’s rear lights and reflectors must not glow white. And as British number plates are required to be reflective, they were also covered by that law. Yellow was chosen instead because both this colour and white contrast most with the black lettering. Incidentally, because of this law, white reverse lights were also initially illegal in Britain, and an exception was not granted until a few years down the line.
In Russia, as in Switzerland, there is a very real risk that all the combinations will soon be used up in some areas, so the system will have to be adjusted. However they choose to reform the system, it is a safe bet that one of the features specific to Russian registration numbers will remain unchanged – people will still be able to read them even if they do not know Cyrillic. This is because only the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet that look like characters in the Latin alphabet are used on Russian plates. There are 12 such characters, and the aim is to make these number plates easy to read abroad.
India is the second most populous country in the world, so you might think that insufficient remaining registration number combinations would be an even more pressing problem than in Switzerland and Russia. The opposite is true. They use several ingredients in their recipe for success, but the main one is very simple – just add more characters. Of all the countries we examined, India has the longest registration numbers, numbering some 10 characters.
China, home to more than 1.4 billion people, is even more populous than India, and yet its system gets by with just seven characters, the same number as the Czech Republic and the UK. How is that possible? There are two reasons for this. The first is actually a little trick – the first character is Chinese and may take any of 30 different forms. However, the second and main reason is that only a limited number of number plates are issued in the largest Chinese cities. Consequently, anyone who wants plates must win a lottery if they live in Beijing or an auction if they reside in Shanghai, for example. In 2018, the average price of an auctioned Shanghai number plate was just shy of $14,000, while The Economist calculated that the likelihood of winning the Beijing lottery was 0.2%. But the good news is that, once you do get Chinese plates, they are yours forever.