A 12-inch-by-6-inch piece of metal that costs $1.26 to manufacture commanded inordinate attention amid the back-room dealing over Ohio's $865 million annual fuel tax increase.

After decades of distaste from detractors and defense by law enforcement, the debate has been decided: Ohio's front license plate will disappear from more than 13.2 million vehicles.

Under the new state transportation budget signed into law last week, Ohio will join 19 other states in finding no need to bolt a plate on front bumpers.

The workload of the 171 prisoners who earn 23 cents to 63 cents an hour stamping out the plates at Lebanon Correctional Institution will be halved, or nearly so.

Beginning July 1, 2020, Ohioans will be liberated from the front-facing requirement to identify their vehicles to police officers. (But, those who want to assist police, or display their vanity or specialty plates, still will be able to order a front plate.)

Vehicle aesthetics and prices, and evolving technology increasingly populating front bumpers with proximity sensors, prevailed over public safety concerns.

Ohio law enforcement officials warn that their ability to solve crimes — ranging from homicides to hit-skips — will be compromised with the disappearance of a front plate from both their line of sight and electronic plate readers that automatically alert them to wanted vehicles.

It did not die without a fight. The Republican-controlled Ohio House insisted on its demise. The GOP-dominated Senate wanted to keep the plate, as did Gov. Mike DeWine.

But amid the stalemate that ultimately led to the difficult deal to raise gas and diesel taxes, something — and someone — had to give.

Ohio's first-year Republican governor, a two-term attorney general friendly to law enforcement, reluctantly did so, pocketing his line-item veto despite police demands to save the front plate.

Asked if pulling the plate was part of the price to be paid to win passage of the transportation budget, DeWine objected to the characterization, but said, "One doesn't get everything one wants."

 

Buying some time

The governor said he was insistent the front plate not be yanked until mid-2020 to allow state officials to study whether new technology could provide a replacement to identify vehicles.

Such technology, which sends signals to equipped police vehicles to identify the vehicle's owner and address, exists, but apparently is not in use in the U.S. California and Michigan have authorized electronic digital license plates, but they remain just that — a plate — and cost $500 to $700, plus a $7 monthly fee.

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, acknowledges law enforcement concerns but said, "It won’t be long before there won’t be a place for a front license plate anyhow. Then when you talk to auto manufacturers, all of the technology that they have and the smart-car technology is all in that front bumper. We’re sitting here asking a mechanic to drill a hole in there. I think it’s a move toward the future for the state of Ohio. We got out of the world of horse whips and buggies. It’s time for Ohio to step forward and modernize.”

The Ohio Automobile Dealers Association complained that vehicle design is making it increasingly difficult to mount front-plate brackets and that installing them lessens sales of new vehicles from customers in adjacent states where front plates are not required. They would rather not have holes in the bumper of their new purchases.

Auto enthusiasts long have said ugly front plates detract from the styling of their vehicles. Some, including the owners of high-end sports and luxury cars, refuse to fly the front plate. They would rather chance the $100 or $150 ticket if a police officer decided to issue a citation.

"I think it is well overdue," said Charles Withey, a Rootstown man who shared photos of his beloved Jeep with and without a front plate. "It is what the people want and serves no purpose. If there was a purpose every state would have one. [I'm] not happy about them postponing it 'til next year. I think this gives them time to put it back into effect. If it is signed in today, it should be gone tomorrow."

 

Safety forces

The lineup that fought to keep the front plate was formidable, a bunch to which lawmakers typically listen: the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association and the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police. While not publicly lobbying, the State Highway Patrol also finds public safety value in the plate.

"Front license plates have proven to be an invaluable tool for law enforcement officers to ensure the safety and security of Ohio’s roadways and communities," said Lt. Robert Sellers, patrol spokesman.

Officers now worry they will lose the clues — and crooks — that come from surveillance cameras and license-plate readers only capturing the front of approaching vehicles. Police can point to front plates that have led to solving crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder.

School bus drivers, and their cameras, can rarely read the rear plate number of a vehicle illegally passing their stopped bus. And hit-skip drivers frequently leave behind incriminating evidence — their front plate. Police also have solved such crimes from the imprint of a plate's raised letters and numbers in plastic bumpers.

Keith Ferrell, a Columbus officer and president of FOP Capital City Lodge 9, said, "We do a lot of crime solving with tags that we get off vehicles. This is taking away half our ability to do that."

It's not realistic, he said, for officers to be looking over their shoulders to see the rear plates of passing vehicles that could be stolen or leaving the scene of a crime.

"It solves a tremendous amount of crimes. That could be somebody's property or a situation and they're not able to get that tag going across the front," Ferrell said.

 

Reach Randy Ludlow at rludlow@dispatch.com or @RandyLudlow. Dispatch reporters Bethany Bruner, Maggie Prosser and Jim Siegel contributed to this report.