Wisconsin DMV will slowly begin replacing old, peeling license plates. Here’s what you need to know.

WisDOT worked with the legislature to pass a bill that requires the department to replace plates that are 10 or more years old

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin has a flaky license plate problem.

“In Wisconsin, (license plates) are produced at the prison, they are actually embossed through a stamping machine, and then there’s a sheeting that’s put over top of it, and that’s what we see peel off,” Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles administrator Kristina Boardman explained.

Many states have a mandatory replacement cycle to replace license plates, usually from four to ten years. Wisconsin used to have that in place, but since it ended, plates have started wearing out.

Recent legislative changes are bringing that cycle back to Wisconsin.

Because license plates commonly lose significant reflectivity within a decade, the industry best practice is a full replacement cycle not to exceed ten years. WisDOT worked with the legislature to pass a law that requires the department to replace plates that are 10 or more years old. Within the next year, WisDOT will begin the incremental process of issuing new plates by age.

“I think the biggest factor working against us right now is just time. There hasn’t been a replacement cycle, people haven’t been proactive about doing it, and so now we’re going to get back to requiring this,” said Boardman.

License plates are considered illegible if they are unable to be read from a normal following distance. A faded license plate or a missing letter or number would be enough to require the replacement of the plate.

Improper display of registration plates can result in a citation and forfeiture totaling $150.10.

The primary factor that leads to illegibility issues is time. The amount of time a vehicle is outside in Wisconsin’s harsh winters is seen as a contributing factor to the deterioration.

Salt accumulation or neglecting to wash a vehicle can contribute to delamination of the sheeting. The amount of time in direct sunlight can also be a contributing factor to fading.

Readable license plates are important for a variety of reasons.

“We all know that law enforcement depends on the readability of our plates, whether it’s automated license plate readers going through tolling facilities or just going down the road, so making sure that our plates are visible is an important highway safety component,” Boardman said.

With their annual registration and based on the age of their license plate, drivers may get a bill for $8 for new plates if their plates are ten years old. Once a driver pays the fee, the DMV will send them new plates.

Unless drivers have a personalized plate, the new plates they will receive in the mail will be a different number. 

“We will be replacing a lot of plates in the next ten years, so people can watch for that, but you don’t have to wait,” Boardman said. “If you go out to your car and say, ‘Hey this is kind of flaking off, I should make sure that I’m doing my part,’ please just go to wisconsindmv.gov, type in replace plates, and we’ll quickly get you to where you need to go whether you can get that online or if there’s a form you need to fill out and mail it.”

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