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Ontario's New License Plates Have A Problem: You Can't Read Them

Toronto videojournalist Andrew Collins noticed that the new plates are "totally unreadable from a distance at night." He tweeted this still from a dash camera video.
Andrew Collins
Toronto videojournalist Andrew Collins noticed that the new plates are "totally unreadable from a distance at night." He tweeted this still from a dash camera video.

Ontario's newly-designed license plates just hit a speedbump. Call it Plate-gate.

A little background: The Canadian province's new design was unveiled by the provincial government — led by center-right Ontario Premier Doug Ford — last year.

Almost immediately, people started comparing the plate design unfavorably to a box of Q-tips.

The plates also had a new slogan – "A Place to Grow" – which drew the ire of some critics, who preferred the previous "Yours to Discover," which the plates had sported since 1982.

Then there was the palette: Observers noticed that the new plates had the same blue color scheme as Ford's Progressive Conservative Party.

But the real problems began once the plates went into use this month.

"Has anyone else noticed that the newly designed @ONgov license plates are totally unreadable from distance at night?" tweeted videojournalist Andrew Collins on Friday. "Could be an issue for [Toronto] police forces in the future."

A Twitter user who describes himself as a police sergeant in Kingston, Ont., tweeted another photo with the same complaint the next day: "Did anyone consult with police before designing and manufacturing the new Ontario licence plates? They're virtually unreadable at night."

It appears the new plate design is struggling with its most important job: clarity.

"It's crazy, right? It's unbelievable," says Collins, the videojournalist.

"If citizens can't read them and call in impaired drivers and traffic complaints, a police officer is certainly not going to be able to read them in a chase situation," he posits.

Journalists at Toronto's CTV network wanted to see if they could recreate the problem, so they shined a light on the new and old plates while slowly moving away. In their video, the old plate remains plainly legible, while the letters on the new one quickly disappear into a blaze of white.

Unsurprisingly, police chiefs in the province are concerned.

"Some officers are surprised and have been taking photos, saying this is what they're looking at," Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police spokesman Joe Couto told the Ottawa Citizen. "It shows very clearly that, especially at night, there may be some visibility issues." He said some police departments reported that their handheld scanners weren't able to read the new plates.

In an emailed statement, Ontario's government says it "consulted with key stakeholders to test the readability, reflectivity and functionality of the new high definition plate design. Ontario's new high definition licence plates were tested using advanced plate reader technology under multiple visibility conditions, and plates were successfully read under those conditions."

But it acknowledged that "some Ontarians are reporting concerns with readability to the naked-eye under certain light conditions," and says it is looking into the issue.

One silver lining? The plates are so new that very few vehicles have them.

"You pretty much have to have bought a new or used car in the last few weeks," says Collins. "Or, you're super with this government and you rushed out to get the Doug Ford plates."

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