'Public safety concern': Ontario's hard-to-see licence plate is worse than you think

The province of Ontario will issue an “enhanced” version of its new licence plate after hearing complaints that it was hard to read at night and was a “public safety concern.”

Lisa Thompson, Ontario’s minister of government and consumer services, said on Thursday that the enhanced plate would be available in as little as three weeks. But until then its current iteration, which was released Feb. 1, will continue to be given out at Service Ontario locations.

The decision to continue to rely on the new plate won’t immediately address concerns brought up by experts, such as by Sgt. Steve Koopman of Kingston Police in Ontario, who pointed out its legibility issues in a viral tweet.

Reading the new licence plate is especially difficult when light is directed on it at night, such as from a car’s headlights, since it appears to give off a noticeable glare, while its letters and numbers seem to disappear.

The new plates, manufactured by 3M Canada, feature two different shades of blue with white lettering on a flat surface. They were released by Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government, much to the chagrin of critics, replacing the classic white plates with raised blue letters. 

Experts have said that the new plate’s visibility concerns will prevent citizens, police, and scanning technology across the province from identifying unsafe drivers, while stripping them of vital information during investigations. The way they’re constructed, with it being a sticker on a flat metal surface, it can also lead to criminals forging and replicating the plates for their personal benefit.

“If a licence is not visible or if it’s obstructed, it’s obviously a public safety concern,” said Joe Couto, a spokesperson for The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) on Tuesday.

“From a citizen’s perspective, if there’s a collision or a hit and run, we need citizen’s to provide us with information, such as the car model and the licence plate number.”

On Thursday, while announcing that the Conservatives will create an “enhanced” version of their plates, Thompson still maintained that their current model “does not pose a risk to public safety."

The Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, who denied an interview request with Yahoo Canada, said they consulted with various stakeholders, such as law enforcement about the licence plate before its release. But Brian Patterson, the president and CEO of Ontario Safety League, says that their consultation process was “narrow,” and that he didn’t even get to see the final version of the plate before its release.

Patterson found it especially surprising, considering his organization has been working with the government on traffic safety ever since 1913, when they were established for that very reason. He says that the plate can have an impact on ensuring safe road conditions.

“Careless driving, impaired driving, that needs to be reported. If you do call it in, you need to be able to accurately see and pass over a licence plate number… At the end of the day, it’s fundamental that a licence plate is readable.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD Canada) also came out with a statement on Wednesday, urging the province to look into the visibility problems associated with the plate, calling it a “very serious concern.”

Warning: explicit language used in the photo video

For police, Couto also said a licence plate can provide important information when running background checks. It can help alert officers if they need to take extra caution after pulling someone over, such as if a vehicle comes up as stolen. A licence plate number can also serve vital for when there’s a kidnapping, such as during an Amber Alert warning, said Ontario’s NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

The government said that the plate is compatible with the latest scanning technology, while Couto hasn’t heard of any problems from forces across the province about their hand-held scanners not being able to read the plates. 

They have also been proven compatible with highway cameras in the province, such as on Ontario’s Highway 407. But Toronto has raised issues about them perhaps not being compatible with their new photo radars, which help them issue tickets for speeding and red light violations. The problems centres around the smaller font size of the jurisdiction name, Ontario, leading to "visibility challenges," especially at night. 

If Toronto’s radars can’t properly scan the plates, it could lead to people purposely not following the rules of the road, which could put everyone in danger. According to 680 News, the City of Toronto wasn’t consulted about the final version of the plate before its release, and are now working to accommodate their radar scanners to Ontario’s plates.

But scanning issues aside, Patterson says that if’s not visible to the human eye, it ultimately “weakens the system.”

Why did the plate have to change?

The changes to the plate, which has not been significantly altered in over 40 years, were part of a redesign campaign by Ford’s government, which cost around $600,000.

It’s come under fire by Ontario’s Liberal and NDP parties, with Horwath going as far describing it as a “Conservative-branded licence plate,” with its blue colour, and redesigned Trillium logo, which was commissioned by the Ford government. 

Ontario’s commercial plate now also feature the slogan “Open For Business,” which was used by the premier during his most recent election campaign.

Whether future opposing governments will feel compelled to move away from the licence plate is yet to be seen, but would create further costs. On the Conservatives’ side, they were not pleased with the old “Liberal” ones, for reasons that might even plague their own plates.

“Sticking with the status quo Liberal plate that was peeling and flaking was not an option,” Thompson said, addressing the new plate’s visibility concerns on Tuesday. “I’m very pleased to share with you that we’re employing new technologies in Ontario plates that have been tested under a whole host of visibility conditions with successful reading results.”

Forgery is a legitimate concern

Despite criticizing the “Liberal” plates, another problem that’s been called out on social media is that the new plate might also peel, since they appear to be a sticker on a “flat surface.”

“This is just stuck on; it’s just a sticker...This to me is still going to peel sometimes, and makes me wonder if someone can replicate this. It can be very easily replicated,” said Jeff Hunter on his YouTube channel.

Dwayne Strocen, a former RCMP officer who’s now the owner of Docufraud Canada, agreed that this is a legitimate concern.

“Think of it from the perspective of the bad guy, who may have a lot of ingenious qualities. Nothing should be overlooked. If there’s no raised lettering, to give a first look for its authenticity, it’s a loop hole to take take advantage of.”

Strocen said that the technology exits for a criminal to forge a licence plate, such as with 3D printing, but he never ran into the problem when he worked as an RCMP officer. In terms of their ability to peel, he said that even the old plates, with raised letters, would get scratched or damaged from a car wash, therefore it’s reasonable to think the same can be done with the new plate and its sticker.

Couto says that he hasn’t heard of any problems which can led to the plate being forged, but some members of OACP have said that the raised numbers and letters on Ontario’s old plate were easier to read.

“The previous plate, there were no real concerns. They were visible,” said Couto. “But with plates, like anything else, they get updated and that’s on the government.”