There's no question Alaska drivers love personalized license plates. One in 20 Alaska vehicles has them, according to a recent survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, ranking the state 13th in the nation.
What did you see on the way to work?
Some plates are a mystery. Some are good for a laugh. But what happens when they have the potential to offend? That's when the DMV steps in. The Division of Motor Vehicles in Anchorage has a team of expert decoders who go through every personalized plate application to nix the obscene, the offensive and the racially discriminatory. It isn't an easy job.
"I don't think people realize what a process it is," said Shelly Mellot, one of the heads of a team of six screeners. Mellot says the committee often considers a younger audience when making decisions.
"How would I feel if my 10-year-old saw that?" she said. "Or asked me, 'What does that mean?' "
Of the roughly 130 applications per week, the committee turns down two or three, said office manager Oscar Zapata, the other head of the team.
They must have a majority "no" vote to have the plates kept off the road. People have different standards of what's OK. Some plates barely squeak through. In May, BUCWLD made it. ORGZMC did not.
Usually, if a plate is someone's name, it gets through. But what if the name can be read two ways? That's when you get cases like the Blome (pronounced like "home") family. Their plates, BLOME and BLOME2, have been on their cars for years. Jennifer Blome, a first-grade teacher, said people occasionally mistake the letters on their plates for off- color messages. Just Tuesday she came out of Fred Meyer to someone taking a photo of her car.
"For the most part, people think it's kind of funny," she said.
The committee gave the ax to "TATAS," in May, but the driver didn't give up. At a hearing, the driver proved to hearing officers that the plate was kosher because it was raising awareness for breast cancer.
There are always a lot of cleverly spelled swearwords. Zapata said he's seen everything.
And Mellot and Zapata say people will try anything to get their plates through. People will spell things wrong, upside down, backwards. The committee recently rejected "NATAS" -- Satan spelled backward.
The committee sees trends in the plates that give a little window into what the public is thinking. In the last year, plates referred to Sarah Palin. After Obama was elected, there was a spike in the number of racially discriminatory plates.
To sort through the tricky slurs and vowel-less phrases, Zapata assembles a multiethnic, age-diverse committee. That way, any offensive phrases in other languages, texting lingo or outdated slang will be caught and kept off the streets.
The committee's youngest member is 22. The oldest is in her mid-50s. There are members who speak Spanish and Korean. With the help of Urbandictionary.com, an online slang dictionary, the committee can track down obscure slurs in many languages.
As comical as the job can be for Zapatas and his team, it is time- consuming. Mellot said the DMV employees spend four to five hours per week on the plates.
"Sometimes it's entertaining," Mellot said. "I have to say, it's amusing that people actually want to put something like that on their vehicle.
By KAYLIN BETTINGER