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Originally published Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 12:07 AM

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State license plates to add 7th character

Beginning in November or early December, automobile license plates in Washington will have seven characters, consisting of a number, a letter, two more numbers and then three letters (1A11AAA).

Seattle Times staff reporter

Remembering license-plate numbers might get a little tougher next month when the state Department of Licensing changes the lettering system on plates.

Today, automobile license plates have three numbers followed by three letters.

But beginning in November or early December, plates will have seven characters, consisting of a number, a letter, two more numbers and then three letters (1A11AAA).

Neighborhood vehicle-licensing offices around the state will begin issuing the new seven-character plates after exhausting their stock of the current six-character plates. This means the new plates will be available at different times in different locations around the state. State officials can't say when the supply in King County might run out.

"The decision to use a seven-character plate number wasn't made in haste," licensing Director Liz Luce said. "We began studying our options years ago and carefully considered our requirements, the needs of law enforcement, and configurations that have been successful in other states."

Licensing chose a seven-character configuration similar to one used in California because it provides a very large number of possible combinations and doesn't conflict with any plates already issued. And because it's the style requested by law-enforcement agencies.

After subtracting combinations the department does not plan to issue, this configuration has more than 350 million possible plate numbers. There will be no plates issued with an I, an O or a Q next to a number, because they might be mistaken for a number. License plates with seven characters are not new. Trucks and commercial vehicles have had seven-digit license plates for years. Personalized license plates, also known as vanity plates, have long been available with seven characters. That will not change under the new rules.

The overall appearance of the passenger-vehicle plates will not change. They will still feature the mountain background now in use. And they will continue to be produced by inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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