I recently learned that the state of Ohio, whose official state rock song – this is a completely true fact – is “Hang On Sloopy” by The McCoys, issues bright yellow license plates to people convicted of driving under the influence. That’s right: the folks in the Ohio state legislature have come up with an entirely new, brightly colored way to make its DUI offenders miserable, as if simply living in Ohio wasn’t punishment enough.
For those of you who don’t believe me, I have here the official Ohio statute authorizing the creation of these license plates. It’s located in The Ohio Statutes Bathroom Reader, chapter 11, section 15, row 9, seats 6 and 7, on the third-base side. It states, and I quote:
It shall be hereby decreed that the great state of Ohio, which has endured serious issues ranging from the time that river in Cleveland caught on fire to the time LeBron James moved to Florida and took approximately 4 percent of all state income tax revenue with him, will create a bright yellow license plate to shame DUI offenders. Oh, and one more thing: hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on!
I’m a bit surprised that the Ohio legislature would do something like this, but I have to admit that there is some precedent. Not from another state government, or from another jurisdiction elsewhere in the world, but rather from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.
Now, I know we all read The Scarlet Letter in high school, but just to refresh your memory, it tells the story of a young 17th century woman – for some reason, she’s named Hester – who has an adulterous affair with a priest, bears an out-of-control child, and is eventually forced to wear a brightly colored “scarlet letter” on her dress because she blew a 0.16 one night driving her minivan home from a league bowling match. Even in the 1600s, people took this sort of thing very seriously.
But anyway, back to Ohio. The state of Ohio says that a judge can make you use one of these license plates if you’ve had a DUI and you’re on a restricted driver’s license. In other words, you probably won’t have any problems if you’re driving a yellow-plated car during the morning commute in suburban Cincinnati. But you might draw the ire of local law enforcement if, for example, you’re in the parking lot of Big Jim’s Booze and Buffet at 2 a.m. doing burnouts in a Chevy pickup that’s loaded down with live chickens. Although, to be completely fair, this is probably an activity that many Ohioans engage in while sober.
Now, I have to admit that this whole thing actually seems like a fairly good idea in theory. After all, many states have restricted driver’s licenses, but there’s no real way to enforce them from outside the vehicle. Enter the yellow license plate, right? Well, sort of. You see, there’s one little problem with these so-called DUI plates: other people.
Here’s what I mean: let’s say you get a DUI in the great state of Kentucky, which does not have an official rock song, though I suspect if it did it would be “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones. Basically, what happens there is, you get the DUI, and you go before the judge, and you have to pay thousands of dollars, and you lose your license for a while, but no one finds out about it. You could get a DUI in Kentucky tomorrow and the only people who would know are the arresting officer, the judge, and your fellow overnight cellmates, who are so strung out on meth that they think Scarlet Letter is a dancer at the local strip club who will blow a lot more than a 0.16 if you tip generously.
But in Ohio, everyone knows you’ve gotten a DUI. You show up at your 9-year-old daughter’s elementary school field day, eager to cheer her on? They see your license plate. They know. “Pepper’s dad got a DUI!” one parent will say. “Well of course he did,” another will reply. “He named his daughter Pepper!”
But it’s not just a problem at school events. Arrive at a job interview, and they see your plates. “I’m sorry,” they tell you. “But we just don’t think you have what it takes to scrub our toilets… DRUNKY!” Show up at a date’s house for a nice evening meal. “Oh, is that your car?” she’ll say. “I’m sorry, but I think I’m coming down with a bad case of… YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!”
Now, you might think I’m overreacting to all this, but here’s the thing: everybody in Ohio knows about these plates. Before I wrote this column, I asked several people from Ohio about the yellow license plates, and they all agreed: when you get up next to these people in traffic, you stare at them as if they just ran over your puppy. Admittedly, one Ohioan said she sometimes confuses yellow-plated cars with “people from New Mexico,” but noted that “they’re probably all drunk too.”
All of this got me thinking about our community standards. I think, at this point, we really have to ask ourselves: do we really want to do this to DUI offenders? Solid members of the community, who made one little mistake, now have to drive around for months like a social pariah? Mothers, pastors, friends, who were just a little over the legal limit should be shunned like outcasts? Is this really how we want to treat our fellow citizens?
The answer is: yeah, probably. So then I started thinking: why stop at DUI?
Well, it turns out that the excellent folks over at the Ohio state legislature are already waaay ahead of me on this one. You see, it seems they realized that the shame created by the yellow license plates is actually a bigger deterrent than the cost or punishment of actually getting a DUI in the first place. So way back in 2007, they also came up with the idea of giving green license plates to sex offenders, presumably so the rest of us would think twice before entering their unmarked white vans. Unfortunately, this bill died in committee, probably because they couldn’t figure out what to do when someone has both a sex offense and a DUI conviction.
But I’m sad the green plates didn’t work out, because I happen to think this whole “license plates for crimes” idea is a pretty good one. For example: people who let their dogs poop on my lawn should get a brown license plate. People who miss an entire green arrow because they’re texting should get a green license plate. And people who name their child “Pepper” should just be taken outside and shot.
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@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.