SEATTLE - The state Department of Licensing plans to begin making seven-character Washington state license plates in 2009.
The 1958 system currently used by the state involves a six-character combination of three numbers and three letters. Inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla are making plates with a letter series that begins with W.
Nearing the end of the alphabet, there are only 2.3 million traditional combinations remaining and the state figures it will run out by July 2009.
The exact format of the new seven-character configuration will be decided in the next year, said Gigi Zenk, spokeswoman for Licensing.
"Maybe it'll be a letter, several numbers, then a letter," she said.
Now comes the tricky part.
With 4.1 million passenger cars licensed here, state officials need to ensure letters aren't arranged with a hidden meaning that could be offensive.
"It's not something you think about on Monday, and then do it on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon," said Glenn Ball, administrator of title and registration services for the state.
Washington's first vehicle license plate was "B-1," issued May 2, 1905, to a man named S.A. Perkins of Tacoma with a 30-horsepower Pope-Toledo touring car. That year, 763 license numbers were issued.
At the time, it cost $2 for a number and the car owner made his own plate, either out of leather, metal or wood. Others just stenciled the license on the rear window.
Now, roughly 860,000 sets of license plates are issued by the state each year. They must be replaced every seven years because their reflective coating breaks down and police can't see them in bad weather.
Plates are randomly assigned to licensing agencies, so reusing already issued numbers would require plates to be custom-manufactured and mailed out.
A request to retain an old number will cost $20 for the service. Only 55,000 people have chosen to do that in the past seven years.
Some letter combinations are also banned, therefore limiting the number of plates that can be made.
There are eight pages with 2,432 "objectionable three-letter plate combinations," said Tom Richardson, the state's license-plate supply officer. The combinations were compiled more than 15 years ago by licensing departments in Washington, California and New Jersey.
The list includes profane groupings beginning with "F," but also combinations such as: APE, BRA, BUT, CAT, DOG, DDT, KID, MOM, MUD, PET, RAT, RYE, TUB, TWO, WIG, YES and ZOO.
GOP and DEM are considered potentially objectionable, presumably because of their political connotations. And I, O and Q are out because they could be mistaken by police as the numbers 1 and 0.
"I don't understand why some of them are objectionable, but they're on the list," Richardson said. "It's just three letters, and it means different things to different people."
Richardson has removed 16 combinations from the list, such as APA, BAK, AUE, BUG, CHP, EAK, EEK, EEW, END, FAN, FUN and GPU, when he couldn't figure out why they were offensive.
However, he did add HOE after Western Washington residents complaints. There were no complaints from Eastern Washington.
"To them, it's a farm implement," Richardson said.
Inmates who make the plates have also pointed out that some three-letter combinations are gang terms. But Richardson said he had them produced anyway since no one else had heard of the terms.
State Patrol and other police agencies also must approve the new configurations.