I’ve Got A Really Simple Idea To Improve The Legibility Of License Plates At Night

I’ll admit, I was a little conflicted about writing up this simple idea, because, really, how much do I want to make licence plates easier to read for police? I mean, there’s plenty of good reasons to do that I suppose, but, well, I’m just not sure I’d want mine to always super legible. But that’s no way to think! So, what the hell, let me just explain this basic idea because it really could benefit everyone.

I was noticing that in so many videos people — not just cops or other officials, just normal people — took of nighttime crazy road-ragers or suspected drunk drivers or other very alarming things people were doing in cars, attempts to video the cars in question often ended up with illegible licence plates, like this:

Screenshot: Twitter

The reason is that licence plates are designed to be highly reflective, to make them more visible at night, even in situations where a car’s legally-required licence plate light is too dim to make the plates legible.

That reflectivity, though, means that when cars are recorded on camera, very often the light reflected off the licence plate will be so bright that it blows out the plate’s image, leaving just a bright white rectangle, with no useful information visible.

So, how do we solve this? We need a way for a licence plate to be visible at night and yet also able to be recorded on camera if needed, and retain legibility. I’d like to do this all without resorting to stupidly needless complications or expensive electronics like those idiotic e-paper licence plates.

For this to work, we need a solution that asks no more complexity or cost from neither car nor licence plate. This has to be as cheap and easy as current plates. I think I have an idea how to do just that:

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

Here’s how I think it can work. Licence plates are still made the same way, from the same stuff — stamped sheet metal. The difference is that the letters and numbers, instead of just being embossed stampings, are now perforated stampings, still embossed letters, but the inside of those letters are punctured with many, many little holes, like a colander or something.

The metal itself would be matte-finished, with a non-reflective coating, and the conventional licence plate light — which, let’s be honest, always kind of sucked at its job, anyway, would be moved to behind the licence plate.

Ideally, the licence plate light would be nice and diffused — maybe electroluminescent panels could be used, or even LEDs behind a diffusing panel — nothing fancy needed, really. Bare LEDs would work, too.

The result would be a licence plate that in the daytime would look like this:

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

See the tiny holes in the characters? At night it would look like this:

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

I think, without the whole plate being highly light-reflective and just the characters casting light, there’s a much better chance for legibility when being recorded with a phone or something. If light is shining on the plate, it’ll be legible like normal, and if it’s dark, the backlight will provide the needed illumination, and any gradient in between should be legible as well.

This wouldn’t increase the cost of licence plates, it wouldn’t require radical changes to cars, and, in a pinch, you could strain pasta through a licence plate.

I suppose I should try and modify an old licence plate to test this; it should be easy enough with a hammer and punch, right?

After further research, It looks like I was barely scooped by these jikōshiki” (字光式) Japanese licence plates that first appeared in 1970 as optional licence plates.

Photo: Drive2.ru, Fair Use

These use a light box behind the plate and transparent green plastic letters. While I think my perforated version is still cheaper, these sure do look cool.