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What's wrong with this picture?

There are so many problems with the concept of selling digital ads on car license plates that it's amazing the idea has gotten this far.

July 09, 2010

California legislators who have proposed selling digital ads on car license plates to help close the state budget gap vow that, if they ever go ahead with the plan, they will take steps to ensure the "integrity" of the venture. Unfortunately, that would be impossible. In order to ensure an idea's integrity, it has to have integrity in the first place.

It's true that the economy is dog-paddling, the state budget deficit is at $19 billion and counting, and no one is eager to pay extra taxes. Still, there are revenue-raising schemes so low-brow that no state with a shred of self-respect would even consider them.

There went the first shred.

As The Times has reported, the Assembly Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bill by Sen. Curren Price Jr. (D-Inglewood) directing various agencies to conduct feasibility studies on the electronic digital license plates, which would flash advertising as well as plate numbers. The bill, SB 1453 previously passed the Senate.

Those who have retained some semblance of common sense have been busily shooting holes in the concept: The ads would make the roads more dangerous by distracting drivers, they say. The computer could be hacked, allowing millions of cars nationwide to flash porn. Connected to a central wireless system, the license plates could theoretically allow the government to track drivers' moves or even tax them on how much they drive. The plates could drain a car's battery; a rear-end collision would probably destroy the plate, leaving no way to track the license number. Courts have ruled that the state cannot discriminate among advertisers, so theoretically the Ku Klux Klan could market itself along with anyone else — though under the plan, drivers could exercise some discretion over which ads their plates would display.

But the primary objection to this scheme is that it would be ugly and cheapening to fill California's streets and neighborhoods with millions of mini marketing ploys. California might as well change its official nickname to the Sellout State and its official motto from "Eureka" to "This space for rent."

As a practical matter, it's unclear whether the state has the legal authority to force residents to go along; it certainly lacks the moral authority. A few motorists might happily allow their cars to become moving billboards, but we suspect that most would object. No matter how legislators might try to sanitize this, they would be diving into a free-speech swamp. But then, the fact that this idea has been driven this far shows that their thinking already was muddy.

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