The low-number license plate on Jeanne Farrow’s vehicle is like a family heirloom. The Nahant driver estimates her father first got the plate about 70 years ago, before eventually passing it along to her.
However, Farrow soon learned the “32164” number sequence on her license plate is not as unique as she once thought.
Years ago, she noticed her EZPass account had a $50 charge when the balance ran low, instead of the usual $20 amount.
“I called them to ask about the charge and the person told me I had a commercial vehicle, which is charged at the higher amount,” Farrow explained. “I kept telling her I had a regular passenger vehicle and she kept insisting it was commercial.”
A frustrating situation for Farrow, but nothing compared to the phone call she received from the Providence Police Department. An officer informed her a witness had spotted her license plate on a vehicle involved in a late-night hit-and-run accident.
“I had to take the day off work and drive to Providence to prove I had a red Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and not a white Ford van,” she recalled. “If I hadn’t gone down to Rhode Island to show them the car, would they have issued a warrant for me?”
Farrow connected with the NBC10 Boston Investigators after seeing a September story about license plate confusion creating headaches for drivers.
In that report, a Scituate woman received hundreds of dollars in mistaken out-of-state toll violations because her license plate had the exact same numbers as a National Guard plate on a different vehicle.
From sports teams to charities to military service, there are more than 40 different specialty plates on Massachusetts roadways.
In September, MassDOT told the NBC10 Boston Investigators that while some plates may appear similar, there are features like symbols and prefixes that are supposed to set them apart. As a result, the agency argues there are no “duplicate” plates.
“That commercial plate has the exact same numbers as mine,” Farrow responded. “To me, that’s a duplicate plate.”
Following the September story, a number of other drivers shared their own experiences with license plate confusion:
• Vietnam veteran Hank Kamyck has a specialty plate recognizing his Army service, but has appealed several toll charges for a similar “955S” license plate
• Bill Hamilton has a low-number “A990” plate. He’s also received toll charges for a veteran plate and commercial plate with the same alpha-numeric sequence
• Sal Russo noticed hundreds of dollars in out-of-state toll violations for a commercial box truck with the same license plate. “My low plate number was very sentimental. However, I wasn’t going to risk going through this again so I turned it in and got a regular plate,” he said.
• Eliot Childs received two parking tickets at the Wellington MBTA lot for a vehicle with a veterans plate that had the same number as his Ford Explorer.
“I guess I’m wondering what algorithm they’re using to dispense plates,” said Mark Glickman, a statistics professor at Harvard University.
Glickman said the appearance of duplicate plates should be an avoidable problem.
The professor explained that with four alpha-numeric characters seen on most specialty plates, there are nearly 1.7 million different possibilities, far more than the roughly 267,000 specialty plates currently on state roadways, according to MassDOT.
“Just cross it off the list. Don’t re-use it,” Glickman said. “There are plenty of four-character plates to spare. There is really no reason there need to be duplicates.”
Despite repeated requests, MassDOT refused to provide an on-camera interview to answer questions about the issue. Instead, a spokesman for the agency said NBC10 Boston could use the same statement provided for the September story.
Farrow said her predicament with the hit-and-run investigation shows the problem can be much more than a nuisance for drivers.
“They need to get their act together and figure out a way to resolve the issue. It can be very serious for some people,” she said.