For two months now, I have been staring intently at vehicle license plates.

I unearthed a (to me) surprising item of interest about the site of this winter’s Florida vacation. I also learned something disturbing about reading those license plates.

First, the fun stuff.

Apalachicola’s midtown grocery store is the delightfully named Piggly Wiggly Super Market. In its parking lot on our first day in Florida, I noticed vehicles with license plates from Wisconsin, Tennessee and Texas, in addition to the expected plates from Florida and nearby Georgia.

I took out my IPhone, found its Notes template and typed in, “FL, PA (ours), WI, TN, and TX.”

As we drove around town in the first week of February, my wife and I spotted plates from 13 states and two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Quebec.

Snowbirds abounded.

That was just the beginning. This small Florida town is eerily reminiscent of Brookville, albeit smaller by about 500 people. Apalachicola’s Route 98 runs east-west as Route 322 does in Brookville. Interstate 10, also east-west, is 40 miles north in Florida, while in Pennsylvania, Interstate 80 actually cuts right through Brookville and kisses DuBois’ northern side. But the license plate variety in Apalach (slang for “Apalachicola;” I say it to pretend to be local) far surpassed Brookville’s. By the end of March, we had spotted plates from 48 states. The only missing states were New Mexico and Nevada. Also missing was the District of Columbia. Canada contributed its provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

We restricted our license plate counting to vehicles only seen within the borders of Apalachicola. Panama City, St. George Island, Destin and other haunts of “spring break” collegians are within hailing distance, but the people getting into the cars in parking lot of “The Pig” (another attempt at localized idioms) were almost all senior citizens.

“Hmm,” and “Interesting,” were the reactions of local people to our license plate findings. Most saw nothing out of the ordinary, probably because they are inured to seeing those plates, winter after winter.

But — 48 states’ license plates within two months? Wow!

I’ll check out Brookville in April and May, but my guess is that I won’t find plates from half as many states, despite the almost big-city traffic along I-80 at times.

Finding the license plates is the fun part of this story. Deciphering the plates’ states is the disturbing part.

License plates once were specifically designed to make it easy for police and the rest of us to read them in case the vehicles were stolen or the drivers were doing something suspicious or overtly criminal.

A decade or two ago, state governments discovered that people would pay extra money to buy “vanity plates” touting their educational institutions, military service, favorite charities, etc.

An astonishing 10 million vanity plates had been issued by 2007, according to a state-by-state survey. Governments get extra money, ranging from $10 in Virginia to $100 in Washington, D.C.

As we expanded our list of license plate states, we saw plain-Jane plates and vanity plates galore. But on maybe one out of every five plates, we could not decipher the numbers and letters, or even the issuing state.

That is the not-fun stuff.

The March 7 edition of the Courier-Express carried a story about whether a child had actually been abducted on March 5 by someone driving a white van. Such a report was given to police, but particulars were scanty.

“We have been chasing white vans all day,” said Officer Greg Gornati of Sandy Township’s police department.

How could ordinary citizens help, he was asked.

Bingo.

License plate information is the most helpful piece of information witnesses can obtain for police, he said.

Good luck with that.

After two months of our new hobby, staring intently at vehicle rear ends, I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in my ability to see that information, then write it down or key it into a note-taking application on a smartphone so I could relay it to police.

License plate viewing can be fun, as it was in childhood when we compiled state-by-state lists during vacation trips.

Or it can be deadly serious, as in “Amber Alerts” and the like, where lives can hang in the balance.

State governments have made it much more difficult to get that information.

That “free” money idea has gone too far. We already can brag about our colleges, our kids, our love of wildlife and, for all I know, our recent loss of weight with bumper and trunk stickers. Pennsylvania charges from $11 to well over $100 to stroke our egos with those plates — and confuse us when we try to talk to police.

State government is not the only culprit. License plate “frames” are supposed to bracket the outsides of license plates. Instead, some drop down far enough into the plate to obscure the state name. A few have smoky plastic covers, ideal for chronic speeders who like to try to outrun police.

States should put public safety first.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net

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