Life in the F4STLN3

This round will help you tell your crappy car from the other crappy cars

Published November 24, 2023

Eric Keihl is the managing editor for Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. Each week, he will accept a reader challenge to write a entire, quiz-ready trivia round on some tricky or obscure subject. You can challenge Eric here.

This week’s theme is “license plates,” suggested by Tucker Harju at Lowry Beer Garden in Denver. Thanks, Tucker!

When I first chose this theme, I thought it’d be a chance to learn about all the fascinating and  artistic license plates of this great wide world of ours. Turns out, nope: America and Canada have a near-total duopoly on license plates that aren’t bland alphanumeric strips.

I’m serious: from the EU to Egypt, Brazil to Bhutan: an avalanche of utilitarian pabulum. I thought Japan, surely, could be counted on to push some boundaries, but… well, they do have these rad glow-in-the-dark plates, and the imperial family gets special ones that are just a chrysanthemum, but overall I’m disappointed.

Then again, I guess it’s only natural that we should dominate in this rather insignificant field: The U.S. has 1.8 million miles of highways, more than doubling up the next-driviest nation, China. And while that asphalt sprawl represents a massive failure to provide more efficient and sustainable transport infrastructure, it also represents a chance to indulge in some dadgum civic pride. So yeah, here we have mostly American license plate facts. Let’s go!

1. The northern lights, a rearing Kodiak bear, and a parade of gold miners have all appeared on license plates for what U.S. state? Alaska

Alaska’s special “U.S. senator” license plate has got to be one of the nation’s rarest: Only eight people have ever held that job, two of them Republicans named Murkowski. The latter Murkowski, Lisa, won re-election by write-in in 2010, despite being bounced in the GOP primary for being not insane enough. Things get weird when you only get three hours of sunlight a day.

2. Thanks to a reorganization law passed in 1970, there are no plates on most of the 230,000 vehicles owned by what government agency? U.S. Postal Service 

The license-plate thing is pretty unique to the USPS, but apparently anyone can drive a car with right-hand drive, as long as it’s street-legal. It’ll cost you a buttload of money though, because you’ll have to import a vehicle or convert one (unless you buy a used USPS Jeep)… but that’s a small price to pay for being able to high-five pedestrians.

3. Kind-of accurate geographically, New York’s license plate has the New York City skyline on the right and what 167-foot-high natural wonder on the left? Niagara Falls

Governor Andrew Cuomo let the people of New York vote on five designs for the new plates in 2019. Prevailing conspiracy theory says that Cuomo was trying to split the vote with four different Statue of Liberty-related designs, to give the win to the one depicting the bridge named for his dad. If so, no dice – but Andrew quickly found bigger failures to get upset about.

4. It’s not just a cliché: Most U.S. states get all of their license plates stamped at very, very low cost, in what sort of facilities? Prisons

The ACLU found that prisoners only pocket a tiny fraction of their already-paltry wages: The rest gets automatically deducted for court fines and fees, plus various charges tacked on by the prisons themselves. Incidentally, major corporations benefiting from cheap prison labor include … well, pretty much all of them.

5. Speaking of clichés, Saskatchewan’s license plates depict what boring-ass grain crop that covers about 9% of the province? Wheat

In 1992, the First Nations of Saskatchewan struck a groundbreaking agreement that netted millions in reparations, which they used to buy almost a Rhode Island’s worth of new reserve land. What’s Cree for “hell yeah”?

6. Chiron’s car sports a vanity plate reading “BLACK305” — 305 being Miami’s area code — in what Best Picture winner that nobody would confuse with La La Land? Moonlight

Mahershala Ali bagged an Oscar for Moonlight, despite just 20 minutes of screen time. Somehow that’s nowhere near the record: Beatrice Straight was in Network for just five minutes, and Hermione Baddeley was nominated for these fine two minutes of work in Room at the Top.

7. Currently hanging in the Smithsonian, this patriotic art piece by Mike Wilkins is named what P-word? Preamble

As in “preamble to the U.S. Constitution,” which it (kind of) spells out. Also, kudos to Idaho and Rhode Island on those “STAB” plates. 

8. McMurdo Station in Antarctica used to sell novelty license plates that read “SP” for “South Pole,” a “90” for the latitude, and what obvious bird in the middle? Penguin

Here’s one of them, and I’ll throw in my favorite Antarctic fact: In 1961, while serving at Novolazarevskaya Station, Soviet surgeon Leonid Rogozov developed appendicitis, describing the pain as “a snow storm whipping through my soul, wailing like 100 jackals.” Being the only doctor around, Leonid performed his own appendectomy. It went off almost without a hitch, and he lived another 39 years. And people say Commies are soft!

Bonus: Not nice! California DMV policy states that only vehicles of a certain model year can have plates with what two-digit number? 69

They’re serious about it: It’s right at the top of their rules.