Australian motor vehicles must be fitted with a number plate on the front and rear, to enable authorities to identify and distinguish similar cars.
They are called number plates even though they are mostly accompanied by a combination of letters.
In the US, number plates are more commonly referred to as “license plates” or “tags”.
The term number plates dates back to the early 1900s, when there were so few cars in Australia, registration authorities simply issued numbers to new vehicles, in chronological order.
Some of the earliest single and double digit number plates now fetch prices in the millions of dollars, due to their rarity.
As Australia grew, authorities quickly ran out of numbers and soon a combination of letters and numbers was used from the late 1930s onwards.
Each state and territory initially didn’t agree on the format, font, or size of number plates.
However, by the early 1950s, states and territories agreed to common sizes for number plates, which typically displayed five or six digits.
The size, shape, font and format of number plates were largely common across the nation from the 1960s onwards.
Some states, such as NSW, broke ranks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and created new shapes and sizes, such as one-off bi-centennial plates and slim-line “premium plates”, which cost roughly triple the price of standard-issue plates.
In the early 2000s, NSW made European-sized number plates an optional extra for vehicle owners who wanted to match their vehicle. Other states have since followed. Some authorities charge an annual fee, others charge a one-off fee up front.
There are now more than a dozen shapes and sizes of number plates nationally, creating a challenge for car makers who need to accomodate all types.
Number plates are now increasingly used to identify vehicles for traffic offences and toll charges, and there are hefty penalties for driving a motor vehicle with obscured or unreadable number plates.
Most states and territories have special “bike rack” number plates to ensure the vehicle can be properly identified when the number plate on the rear of a car is obscured.
Speed and red light cameras rely on number plates to identify vehicles; they are also used by toll road operators to pinpoint cars that may not have a tag fitted, or if a tag has not worked correctly when passing a charge point on an overhead gantry.
Some car park operators also use number plate recognition cameras to eliminate the need for paper tickets, at the entry and exit boom gates.
Number plates can also help police spot wanted vehicles in heavy traffic, on the open road, or in car parks.
The technology can also be used to identify a vehicle driven by a wanted person, and many people have been detected this way.
Without the ANPR technology – which can read multiple number plates per second in oncoming traffic and cars in adjacent lanes travelling in the same direction – a police car could have driven past a wanted car and not spotted them.
Number plates that have been remade or customised by the vehicle owner – and which lack the reflective finish, and/or are a different font, size or shape – are illegal in most states and territories because enforcement cameras cannot detect them. They are deemed to be a false number plate and can attract hefty penalties.
The increasing importance of – and reliance on – number plates has coincided with an increase in the number of stolen and bogus “cloned” number plates. Cloning is where someone has illegally created a copy of number plates that are attached to a legitimately registered motor vehicle.
Stolen and cloned number plates have been used to avoid paying road tolls, and to avoid apprehension when committing crimes.
Some states will allow stolen or lost number plates to be replaced; others will cancel that particular combination of letters and numbers and issue a new set of number plates.
Now that vehicle registration labels have all but been phased out, you can also check whether a vehicle is registered by simply typing the number plate into the road authority website in most states and territories.