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Are license plate covers legal in Washington, and do you actually need two plates?

A sample of cars in Tacoma with either a license plate cover or no license plate in front, March 29, 2018.
A sample of cars in Tacoma with either a license plate cover or no license plate in front, March 29, 2018. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Q: I regularly see after-market license plate covers that have grown cloudy so as to conceal the plate's information. And then there are the cars that don't display a front license plate at all. My question: What are the rules about being able to read all license plates, and what plates are required? — Nancy

A: I shortened this question a bit to narrow the scope of Nancy's inquiry. She seems to be mostly interested in what the law says about displaying license plates.

As Nancy pointed out in her email, some license plate covers can be used to throw off red light cameras by creating a glare so that the numbers and letters on the plate can't be read.

I asked our good friend Sgt. James Prouty of the Washington State Patrol for help, yet again, and he came through, yet again.

First, on the number of plates: You have to display two if two were issued to you. This could potentially vary depending on the state in which your car was registered, but in Washington, he said drivers are usually issued two plates (Prouty said there are exceptions, including motorcycles, trailers and a collector-vehicle or restored-vehicle plate.)

While the law on license plates doesn't appear to state that you can't use a cover over them, Prouty said license plates cannot be obscured "and must be plainly seen and read at all times."

Here are some other relevant elements of the state law on license plates:

▪ They need to be kept clean and must be able to be plainly seen and read at all times and attached horizontally no more than 4 feet above the ground.

▪ It's illegal to display a license plate that has been changed, altered or disfigured or has become illegible.

▪ It's illegal to use holders, frames or other materials that change, alter or make a license plate or plates illegible. "License plate frames may be used on license plates only if the frames do not obscure license tabs or identifying letters or numbers on the plates and the license plates can be plainly seen and read at all times."

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud
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