Irish number plates point to chaos

Oh dear.

New number plates in the Republic of Ireland contain far too many digits

New number plates in the Republic of Ireland contain far too many digits

To do a post on vehicle registration plates is slightly depraved. But here is the thing: if there is one thing wrong with modern Ireland it is some of the crazy, insular decisions made in public administration.

Irish vehicle registration plates (those used in the Republic) used to have the value, at least, of simplicity – two digits for the year, one for cities or two for counties, and then a number. Even then, this wasn’t perfect – it resulted in too many digits to be easily memorable, because even assuming you remember the year and the city/county, you have still a five- or even six-digit serial number to remember in most cases.

That system, simple though it was, still breached the European norm which has always been no more than eight digits in total, and preferably no more than seven. France and Italy, countries with high car ownership at over 60 million people, have recently introduced systems which have seven (rather than eight as previously); the Netherlands, with close to 20 million, makes do with just six. Only Germany (82 million) really now allows eight digits, and even that is infrequent. The only exception to all of this, already, was Ireland, which typically had eight (plus two hyphens, where even Germany makes do with one) despite a population of just 4.5 million. So the system was simple, but not particularly memorable or user-friendly.

Politicians and car dealers got agitated, however, by the prospect of the two-digit plates for 2013, starting as they would with ’13’ and then the city/county code. This would not do, decided the authorities – and promptly added another digit, and worse still had it added to the year code! So now, where even France and Italy are making do with seven digits, Ireland (population half of Greater Paris and about the same as Rome) will frequently have nine! Not only that, but the simplicity of the system is wiped and the memorability limited – and to make matters truly awful, the extra digit may only be a ‘1’ (for January-June) or a ‘2’ (for July-December). If the above plate looks bad, imagine what it will be like in the second half of 2020 with fewer ‘1s’!

This is just a quirk, surely? Yet sadly it seems to typify too many public administration decisions. No one sat down and thought what a good number plate system would do and what was important about it (say, by comparison with other countries); no one gave any consideration to the memorability of the system (the whole point of the plates to start with); no one thought of the legibility of a plate with nine digits and two hyphens; and I daresay no one thought of the aesthetics of it either. If that is what happens with vehicle numbering systems, we have to wonder what is going on with the system for giving out prescription drugs, or assessing education standards, or ensuring efficient policing? That is the real issue.

Carelessness, insularity and laziness typified the decision to make Irish number plates look so daft – an example of two many aspects of public decision making. The public should demand much better.


12 thoughts on “Irish number plates point to chaos

  1. harryaswell says:

    Daft they may be, but so what? They are at least interesting, and certainly different. As for remembering them, well, I find it hard to remember my NI plate and have it in my diary in case! Daftness is only in the eyes of the beholder. I doubt the Irish public will demand any such changes when they already have so much more, more worrying things to demand, such as food for the table!

    • The real point is this – if they get irrelevant things wrong, can we be sure they’re getting relevant things right?

      If number plate reform results in a daft system, how can we be sure health reform won’t?

      • harryaswell says:

        Relevance is surely, again, in the eyes of the beholder? What is relevant to me quite possibly is irrelevant to you, or even daft! It is perfectly possible that the RoI health reform will be daft. After all, it seems that we here in NI cannot get the health service properly sorted. It too is completely daft. In any case, it is my opinion over many years that the RoI politicians are a pretty dismal lot and what can only be termed as willing amateurs. Our own politicians are not far behind actually.

      • It is likely that any reform would be daft. That is the point.

        Countries with chaotic road signage tend to have chaotic public services generally.

  2. fermaniard says:

    Thanks for this post. Now I know not to buy a car from the Republic of Ireland with a 131 number plate. It is unlucky

    • It’s also close to illegible!

      Most Southern Irish plates will now have a whopping nine digits. Try reading “202-WX-2386” from distance… and then memorising it…

  3. Declan says:

    The ‘serial number’ actually signifies the order in which a car was registed that year. So ’12 WW 100′ is the hundredth car registed in Wicklow in 2012, ’12 WW 5000′ is the five thousandth car in 2012 and so on. Only in cities and the bigger counties does the last section of car registration plates usully get into 5-digit territory, i.e. 10,000 cars have to be registered before that happens. 6-digits probably only happened at the height of the Celtic Tiger and then only in Dublin.

    Agree though that altering the system because the number 13 is considered unlucky is pathetic. It’s also giving into the motor industry lobby who think that a mid-year change in plates will encourage sales.

    • Hi Declan – the point is that under the daft new system only a four-digit serial number will be required for the plate to reach *nine* overall in most instances (in counties) – e.g. 131-WX-1234.

      Of course, since Dublin reaches six figures already, it too will reach five comfortably and thus nine overall – 131-D-12345.

      In all seriousness, a plate like 202-WX-2369 will scarcely be legible from any distance, and tricky the remember even then. “Well officer, I couldn’t really see it, I think there were a few twos in there somewhere…”

      That is precisely why every other first-world country on the planet sticks to eight as an absolute maximum (and that is in practice rare even in Germany) and generally to six or seven.

  4. other paul says:

    I followed this story from time to time on the Matt Cooper show on TodayFM last year. I think the reasoning for this was mostly due to a collapsing Irish car industry who were faced with the double whammy of plummeting sales and an upcoming unlucky number plate. It was reasoned that the introduction of biannual plates like the UK’s would get round the issue of an “unlucky number” and also help even sales out throughout the year. They might have even thought giving two-fingers up to the EU bureaucrats was an added benefit given the actions of the troika! I don’t think it’s anywhere near deserving of the attention you’ve given it in this post, and I think if it helps people keep their jobs/employees then I would completely support it. So, once again, I agree with @harryaswell!

    • It would have been very easy to design a system which would have had all the benefits you propose without rendering plates illegible and thus impractical.

      If GB with 60 million people can make do with seven digits, Ireland should not need nine!

  5. saunier says:

    That system is really nuts! I suggest you adopt a “Irish wide” system based on what we already do on the EU mailand….
    Or you could still keep the letters system….D-OOO1AA = Dublin, etc……but a Irish wide system would make sense though. I am sure youy can figure it out…hmmm
    AAA-OOO1 for example…

    • It’s an interesting point, that.

      My own view is that centralised countries – such as France, Sweden and the Netherlands – prefer single country-wide systems.

      Fairly localised or federal countries – Germany, Norway or Ireland – tend to mark where the vehicle is from.

      The trend, as you rightly say, is towards the first of these (which even some non-centralised countries such as Italy and Spain have moved to). However, in Ireland local loyalties are important, so I think it will continue to mark the county for a while yet!

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