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‘FARTCAR’: The license plates Virginia DMV won’t let you have

A license plate that reads "MOMSJK"
This car, like about 20% of all registered Virginia vehicles, has a license plate with both custom text and background. Costing only $10 per year, about 31% of Virginia license plates have custom text. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Blink and you’ll miss it: a bad pun, a cryptic joke, a reference to a favorite movie or hobby. Virginia vanity license plates blanket the roadways and have tested motorists’ wit and ingenuity since they were first introduced in 1981.

At $10 a pop per year, the “personalized plates,” in the official parlance of the Department of Motor Vehicles, are a relative bargain compared to the $30 initial fee charged by North Carolina and the $100 initial fee levied by Washington, D.C. That may be one reason the commonwealth was the top state for vanity plate usage in a 2006 survey from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators — the latest data available from the group, according to a spokesperson.

A trove of thousands of rejected vanity plates from 2019, 2020, and most of 2021 obtained by VPM News highlights drivers’ continued interest in pushing the boundaries of what’s allowed on roadways. There’s the celebratory (“YEHAWMF”), callouts (“DMNGRL”), memes (“TFKAREN”) and self-congratulatory (“PRTTYAF”). Perennial favorite topics include poop jokes (“OHHPOO” “FARTCAR” and, in a possible nod to an iconic Seinfeld episode, “POOPMAN”), drug references (“REEFAH,” “COCAIN,” and “SHROOMZ”), slights directed at other motorists (“CYALUZR” “PPULSUC”) and a slew of unrepeatable sex references.

The plates are an unorthodox index on the country’s political anger. Former President Donald Trump continues to make appearances (“45CROOK,” “FTRMP,” and “DONSUX”), and 2021 saw a spate of plates attacking his successor (“BIDNWTF,” “JOESKS,” and “BDNH8R”). The turbulence of 2020 inspired new plate proposals ranging from the pandemic (“FCOVD19” “FUCVID” “WTH2020”) to racial justice protests (“BLMFTP,” “BLMF12”). Other plate requests appear to cross the line into racism.

The plates’ popularity dimmed somewhat during the last several years. Roughly 11.1% of registered vehicles had personalized plates during the 2022 fiscal year, down from 11.9% in 2016, according to data provided by Virginia DMV spokesperson Jessica Cowardin, a spokesperson for Virginia DMV.. The number of speciality plates — license plates with backgrounds that announce support for a cause (‘ Friends of Tibet’), university or activity (‘ Aviation Enthusiast’) — has increased about at about the same rate that vanity plates have decreased, with about 14% of registered vehicles using those plates. An additional 20% of Virginia vehicles choose both a custom background and message.

Cowardin said the vast majority of the roughly 10,000 vanity plate requests they get every month are fun and inoffensive. Motorists can use an online tool to check whether their plate idea is unclaimed and whether it appears on what’s internally called the “no-no list” — an ever-growing compendium of more than 39,000 vanity plate combinations found to violate the DMV’s restrictions. A special team at the agency double-checks permutations by reading them backwards.

The rules ban plates that the DMV deems:

  • Profane, obscene, or vulgar in nature;
  • Sexually explicit or graphic;
  • Excretory-related;
  • Used to describe intimate body parts or genitals;
  • Used to condone or encourage violence;
  • Used to describe illegal activities or illegal substances

If a plate gets flagged as potentially objectionable — or if a motorist notices a potentially crude plate that made it onto the road — it goes in front of a special committee made up of what Cowardin described as a diverse group of DMV employees. Cowardin declined VPM News’ request to attend one of their meetings, citing the candid conversations that happen there.

It’s ultimately up to the DMV’s special registration office manager to decide what plates make it on the road. Applicants are allowed to appeal, and occasionally, cases wind up in court.

It’s a constant battle to keep up with motorists’ knack for stretching the rules, Cowardin said.

“Just when we think we've seen it all, something new comes through,” Cowardin said. “Do we miss a few? Sure. Are we sometimes overly cautious? You bet.”

Specialty plates have also sparked legal battles, including a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case upholding Texas’ decision to ban specialty license plates featuring a Confederate flag.

Drivers’ specialty plate purchases can also be an outlet for political fights. Washingtonian magazine reported earlier this month that Virginia’s “Trust Women. Respect Choice.” specialty plate has outsold “Choose Life” since the June Supreme Court decision overturning in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned a constitutional right to an abortion. Overall, though, the anti-abortion plates still far outnumber the pro-abortion-rights ones.

Lawmakers are constantly adding new plates. This year, the General Assembly approved a new specialty plate commemorating the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper established in 1883, and another bearing the emblem of the U.S. Navy. Other efforts died in committee, including one announcing precious cargo: “FORMER VIRGINIA STATE LEGISLATOR.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said DMV rejected a request for a license plate that read "BLM." That plate was incorrectly included by DMV in a list of rejections. It has been on a vehicle since 2017.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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