Why does Minnesota require new license plates every seven years?

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When Michelle Lasswell recently renewed her vehicle registration, she was given a new set of license plates to put on her car.

Installing them became a “huge ordeal”, said Northfield resident Lasswell. She struggled to remove her old license plates and broke one of the rusty bolts holding them in place.

“The license plates themselves were good,” Lasswell said. “It made me wonder why I had to replace my license plates instead of just putting new tabs on.”

Others like Misty Compaan asked themselves the same question. She first received Minnesota plates in 2014 and last year the state gave her new plates for the family’s two vehicles.

“I just memorized the old ones,” she joked. “It created quite a discussion in the household.”

Lasswell and Compaan were among several readers who asked Curious Minnesota – Star Tribune’s community reporting project – why Minnesota requires drivers to get new license plates every seven years.

License plates help law enforcement quickly identify vehicles and show that the vehicle has been registered. State Law requires plates to be readable from a minimum distance of 110 feet and visible from a distance of 1,500 feet.

In Minnesota, aluminum license plates are covered with a thin, high-definition sheet made by 3M of maple wood which helps with reflectivity and makes them highly visible in low light conditions. If the coating peels off, the plates may become dull and difficult to read. The film has a five-year warranty, said Tim Post, a 3M spokesman.

“After five years, the reflective properties begin to decline due to exposure to the elements and road salt,” he wrote in an email. “3M studies show that reflectivity can drop by up to 50% between five and ten years on the road.”

The state gives each plate a seven-year life expectancy and replaces them accordingly, said Pong Xiong, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) division, which oversees license requirements. ‘registration.

“The Problem of the Year”

Things were different, however.

Minnesota used to have lifetime plates, meaning they stayed with the vehicle forever unless damaged or illegible. That changed in the mid-1980s, when law enforcement groups and 3M lobbied for a new law requiring all plates to be replaced and then regularly swapped out every several years, according to newspaper reports from the time.

The law has generated controversy and attracted a legal challenge which left him in limbo for several years. State Public Safety Commissioner Paul Tschida said he was surprised by the public response, according to a 1986 Star Tribune article. “It’s become the issue of the year,” Tschida said.

Minnesota is among a number of states with seven-year replacement laws, including Indiana and North Carolina – which began the practice in 2021. In Montana, plates are replaced every five year. Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Florida follow a 10-year cycle. Washington State and Texas do not have a fixed schedule, having dropped their seven-year replacement rules.

Some special license plates — which are separate from personalized plates — are exempt from Minnesota’s seven-year replacement schedule. This includes special plates held by veterans of the Vietnam, Korean and Iraq wars, as well as active and retired members of the National Guard. “Proud to be a Veteran” plaques are exempt, as are special plaques belonging to members of the American Legion and VFW and recipients of certain military honors.

In the case of a collector’s vehicle – defined as a vehicle at least 20 years old – the plate is valid without renewal as long as the vehicle is in Minnesota.

Minnesota vehicle owners pay $15.50 in addition to registration fees when new plates are required. The fee covers the $6.39 cost to MinnCor, the state’s prison industry program, to manufacture and distribute the plaques. State plates are made by prisoners at the Rush City Correctional Facility.

Plates are replaced free of charge if they begin to delaminate or corrode within seven years, unless damaged by accident or neglect, said Department of Safety spokeswoman Becky Mechtel Minnesota public.

Drivers can also request new plates at any time instead of buying tabs, Mechtel said. Last year, more than 38,000 vehicle owners replaced their plates before the expiration date, in many cases to upgrade to a special plate like those promoting state parks or a school.

More characters?

Minnesota plates are configured with sequences that use three numbers and three letters. Starting with AAA 001 to ZZZ 999 and 001 AAA to 999 ZZZ, DVS has approximately 21.9 million possible combinations. Minnesota has more than 4.95 million registered vehicles, and so far the streaks won’t have to be repeated for about 20 years.

“We haven’t run out of it,” Xiong said. But with more vehicles entering the state and the growing population, “it’s hard to predict when we might run out of numbers.”

He said the state is looking at possibly adding a character or two to future plates.

“We have choices,” Xiong said. “We actively make sure we have enough footage.”

With their new plates in hand, Lasswell and Compaan wondered what to do with their outdated aluminum parts.

“You can only have so many license plates hanging in your basement or garage,” Lasswell said.

Don’t throw them in your curbside recycling bin, Mechtel said. Damaged, destroyed and expired plates can be dropped off at MinnCor in Roseville for recycling. Drivers can also drop them off at a recycler or any motor vehicle office that handles license plate transactions, Mechtel said.

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Read more curious stories from Minnesota:

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