My car is a Suzuki Alto. Suzukis aren’t exactly rare on British roads, but they are one of the lesser spotted makes, so you do notice when you see another Suzuki. Yesterday as I was driving home from work, I saw one coming the other way: same model as mine, same colour, and the same license plate with one letter different! UK number plates are Two-Letters-Two-Numbers-Three-Letters, so on the car I saw only one letter of the three letter group was different to mine. An almost identical twin! An amazing coincidence, and definitely a fun moment.
The even funnier thing is that the exact same thing happened to me with my previous car.
Have you ever seen the Autism Quotient test? It asks you 50 questions, and your score basically tells you whether you are more of a ‘systemiser’ or ‘empathiser’, and (I’m simplifying here) a high systemising score correlates with a high probability that you are autistic. The test has been criticised, and you can see one problem right away – ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are not mutually exclusive. But anyway, I don’t really want to talk about this test or the problem with it, I only mentioned it because one of the questions is ‘Do you notice license number plates?’ To which my answer is ‘yes, all the time’ (which I’m sure got me a lot of systemising points when I took the test). Not only do I notice the number plates, I also notice the makes and models of the cars I see around me. Does that mean I have a special interest in cars, that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of cars and can identify hundreds of models at a glance? No. I often have to look what is written on the car. But the point is, I do look. I’m not especially interested in cars at all, but still I look and notice. I think it’s more a “wanting to know” attitude. It’s the same with birds, when I see one, I want to know what it is. My mother always says that ‘nice bird’ is enough for her, but it’s not for me. I do have an interest in birds which I don’t have in cars, but even with the cars it’s more of an automatic noticing. I think I couldn’t ignore the incoming information even if I wanted to.
It is actually not easy to spot a twin of my car. After all I have said above, it is possible that it wasn’t exactly the same car. The Suzuki Alto and the Suzuki Swift are practically indistinguishable for me from the front. There are other cars which look almost the same as mine: Volkswagen, Citroen, Toyota, they all make cars which look almost the same as mine. Quite often I think ‘oh, there’s one like mine’, only to discover that it’s not.
Number plates are interesting. I only know how German ones and UK ones ‘work’, and they are quite different. On UK number plates, you can see when a car was first registered – basically, how old a car is. The two numbers on my car are 62, that means it was first registered in the second half of 2012. If it had been registered in the first half, the numbers would have been 12. My old car had 04, that means first half of 2004. The UK issues two numberplate series per year.
I am told that there is some code in the letters which tells you where a car was first registered as well, but if you are haven’t got that specialised knowledge, it’s in no way obvious. Once a car in the UK has its registration number, it keeps that number, even if it changes owner and moves up and down the country.
Contrast that with the German system. On German number plates, you can see where a car is registered. So if you live in Munich, your car registration starts with M. If you live in Kiel, it will be KI. Not every town and village gets its own location code, in rural areas only the district gets one. So if you are in Munich and you spot a car with KI, you know that they are a long way from home.
Except, not anymore necessarily. It used to be that when a car changed hands, the new owner would have to re-register it where they lived, with a new registration number. Or, if the owner moves, say from Kiel to Munich, they would have to re-register the car with a new number, changing from KI to M. But not anymore. Very recently the regulations in Germany have changed, so that owners don’t have to change the registration even if their residence changes. I find this quite annoying, because you used to be able to tell where a car is from, but now that certainty has been removed. And the fun. People are driving round under false flags! Also, if you can tell by the number plate that someone is obviously a stranger, you might cut the driver some slack, if e.g. they drive slowly or end up in the wrong lane. But since you can’t know anymore if someone is a stranger, what will happen to the slack-cutting?
Which brings me to one of my inventions: the T plate.
If you live in the UK, you will know L plates. If you don’t, let me enlighten you: L signifies ‘learner driver’, and you have to stick one of those big red Ls onto your car if it’s driven by someone who is just learning to drive and hasn’t got their license yet. There are also P plates, for ‘probationary driver’, i.e. someone who just got their license, which is only given to you on probation for the first 2 years. P plates are not compulsory.
Now, I passed my test in 1992, but I’m an anxious driver at the best of times, and even more anxious and uncertain when I drive in unknown locations. I might well drive infuriatingly slowly, turn suddenly or end up in the wrong lane. Of course, UK number plates being what they are, nobody can tell whether I’m a stranger or a local. This is where my T plate would come in: T is for ‘tourist’, and it would signal to the other drivers that I’m a stranger, and hopefully they would cut me some slack, too. If they’re nice.