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Thanks to COVID-19, NC DMV won't begin replacing old license plates until next year

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) — Richard Stradling The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

June 30-- Jun. 30--RALEIGH -- If you have an old North Carolina license plate on your car, you won't have to replace it until at least next year.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles says it is not ready to meet a Wednesday deadline to begin replacing license plates that are 7 years old or older. The DMV says the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the replacement effort until at least Jan. 1, 2021.

North Carolinians have never had to replace their license plates as long at they remained readable and in decent shape. The General Assembly voted to change that last fall, requiring the DMV to begin replacing plates every seven years starting July 1, 2020.

The new replacement effort was tied to a requirement that North Carolina license plates use the latest in reflective technology to make them easier to see and read at night. The DMV has formed a team to come up with a reflectivity standard that also meets the needs of law enforcement agencies and machines that read plates to assess tolls or allow vehicles to enter or exit parking areas.

The agency also needs to update its registration computer system to flag when a plate needs replacing and order a new one.

The DMV estimates it will have to replace 2.4 million plates in the first year, said spokesman Steve Abbott. That includes every standard car and motorcycle plate that is 7 years old when it comes up for renewal, but also every one that is older than 7.

All other plates -- including specialty and personalized plates and those on commercial or government vehicles, taxis and rental cars -- would begin to be replaced in the second year, Abbott said.

Vehicle owners wouldn't have to pay for the new tag, beyond the normal registration renewal fee and vehicle property tax payment. If they renew by mail, the new plate would come in the mail. If they renew at a license plate agency, they'd have to return to pick it up.

The old plate should be returned to the DMV, either by mail or to the license plate agency office, Abbott said, "so they can be properly removed from the system and destroyed."

There are 9.2 million registered vehicles and trailers in North Carolina. The DMV has estimated the replacement effort would cost $11.6 million in the first year, including plates, registration cards and stickers, postage and IT costs, Abbott said.

The cost is expected to drop to about $5.3 million in the second year, when the DMV is replacing fewer plates.

Who wanted plates replaced every 7 years?

It's not clear where the replacement mandate originated. The DMV and the Department of Transportation say they didn't ask for it; same for the State Highway Patrol and the N.C. Sheriffs' Association.

The seven-year requirement was not in the original version of House Bill 211 when it was filed in February 2019. Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County who heads the House transportation committee, introduced the 7-year proposal in the House rules committee, along with a provision that included detailed specifications for making the plates reflective.

"What this amendment does is actually it takes us into a modern age. It will inevitably remove the old metal stamp process that we currently do, as you know, by many of our North Carolina inmates and take them into the digital printing world," Torbett told committee members. "It's better for the license plate, to be able to read them for law enforcement. It's better for the owner of the license plate to be more lucent. They'll be brighter."

Torbett did not respond to requests for comment on the bill.

The Senate transportation committee later stripped out the detailed specs for making the plates reflective, restoring language that simply said the plates should be "treated with reflectorized materials" to make them easier to see at night. But the requirement that the plates be replaced every seven years survived in the final version of the bill that Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law last September.

The bill, which included several other provisions related to the DMV, passed without any dissenting votes in the House or Senate, though Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County, stood on the House floor to question the need to replace plates every seven years.

"Mine is 15 years old, and it's in perfectly good shape," Harrison said later. "I just saw a lot of waste and wondered if this is doing a favor for a vendor."

Eddie Caldwell, the sheriff's association's executive vice president, said he had not heard law enforcement agencies talk about the need for more visible license plates before the legislation came up last fall.

"But I can tell you just from walking through parking lots and parking decks that some license tags are just unreadable," Caldwell said in an interview after the bill became law. "I think it is definitely positive for public safety to require that plates be replaced when they are no longer legible from a reasonable distance. Whether that's 7 years or 17 or 6, I don't know."

The coronavirus outbreak has caused all sorts of trouble for DMV. In March, the agency closed 61 of its driver's license offices and began operating the remaining 54 on an appointment-only basis to try to minimize the spread of coronavirus. It also stopped offering road tests, except for commercial licenses and for medical exemptions.

The General Assembly responded by giving people five extra months to renew any license, permit, registration or other credential issued by the DMV. It also postponed the move of the agency's headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount and waived the road test requirement for teens 16 or 17 who otherwise qualified for a Level 2 provisional license.

As the July 1 deadline to begin replacing old license plates approached, the DMV had hoped the legislature would give it a reprieve and push the date back. Lawmakers left town last week without doing that, but Abbott said they "have been looped in on the issue and are aware that it won't start July 1."

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