What started as an interesting event for collectors of Ontario licence plates has turned into a train wreck, followed by emergency surgery. What follows is a day-by-day description of #plategate.
On Saturday, February 1, 2020, Ontario released its new blue “A Place To Grow” licence plates for sale to the general motoring public. There was much chatter about it on social media channels. By the end of the day, a few of my good friends in the plate-collecting hobby had already gone out and re-plated their cars. It was a welcome change to have something different-looking affixed to our bumpers.
The plates were flat, which is a hallmark of the current production methods of the 3M Company. How are they made? First, the background sheeting is applied to the plates (including the white “Ontario” province name, trillium monogram divider, and the crown in the lower right corner). The plates are blank at this point. Second, the serial letters and numbers are applied atop the background by some kind of proprietary printing / heating process that melts the characters into the background until they’re fused. As such, the numbers are not made of exactly the same reflective materials as the background.
Jim Becksted waited until that same evening before taking a flash picture of his plate, mounted on his vehicle, to see what it would look like at night. His picture revealed something odd (CMDT). As it turned out, Jim was the very first person in Ontario who reported that the serial numbers of the new plates don’t reflect very well. He shared a picture with his friends (of which I am one), and we were all curious. Andy Shone took a night-time picture of his own plate (FAAE) and found a similar effect: The background was bright, but it drowned out the non-reflective numbers, which looked nearly invisible from some angles and distances. We discussed our likes and dislikes about the new plates, but this non-reflectivity seemed very strange to me. Why would they have been made this way?
Nonetheless, we Ontario collectors were thrilled to finally have something new to see on the roads. A reporter from CTV found me and requested an interview, but I was about to start my work day and wasn't available on short notice. I immediately put CTV in touch with the "elder statesman" of our hobby in Ontario, Dave Steckley, whom I knew would be willing and able appear on camera. It was a no-brainer: He's been collecting Ontario plates longer than I've been alive, he's been following the rollout closely, and he already had a pair of his own (purchased on day one). A news crew was dispatched to Dave's place. He provided a great interview, and a brief tour of his collection!
I went out and procured a pair for my own car the following Tuesday, February 4. On the plates’ maiden voyage home, I stopped for a coffee and talked to a guy who was amazed that my plates were blue. He hadn’t heard anything in the news about a new issue coming out (but he looked like the kind of guy who would rather spend time on his Ski-Doo than reading boring news releases from ServiceOntario). I drove home happily, with a cool number attached to my car. Reflective or not, I was stoked.
The following night, I met up with my plate-collecting buddy Eric Vettoretti, who also had a new pair of blue plates on his car. We talked about Jim and Andy's pictures. I viewed our own plates from a few angles, with the streetlights around us, and the occasional pair of headlights shining on the plates before passing by. The background was quite reflective, but the serial letters and numbers were far less so.
“This is a problem,” I said. “I bet this is going to turn into a substantial issue for law enforcement. They may have to revise the plates.” I didn’t have a tape recorder catching my exact words at the time, but it’s a moment Eric remembered.
“You called it,” Eric would say to me a few weeks later.
It wasn't long until a police officer in Kingston also noticed that the plates were poorly reflective at night, and had low legibility. He took a picture of the problem in action and Tweeted about it on February 15. Within a couple of days, the mainstream media discovered his post and turned the issue into a substantial news story.
Lisa Thompson, the Minister of Government and Consumer Services, initially stood by the new plates, obtusely claiming that “they work” when questioned about it on February 19. However, the Infrastructure and Transportation Critic, Jennifer French, pressed the issue in the Provincial Legislature during question period.
One day later, February 20, the Ontario government admitted that the plates were flawed and stated that they were working with 3M, the manufacturer of the plates, to correct the problem. Thompson further stated that “we have been exhaustive with our testing,” despite what was viewed by the media as a substantial design flaw. Premier Doug Ford’s office also admitted to being “frustrated” by the situation, and later indicated that a recall would ultimately take place.
The details of the recall were announced February 28: The government would cease issuing the plates at end-of-day on March 4, and begin issuing retained surplus old-style plates as of March 5. As for the 71,000 sets of issued blue plates, the government indicated that affected motorists would receive instructions in the mail as to how the recall would take place (presumably, one would bring their plates to ServiceOntario for a mandatory exchange). The recall announcement included a March 16 date for the release of “redesigned” plates. But what did “redesigned” mean? The government said the entire plate was under review. They were tight-lipped as to whether there would be a change in the overall look of the plate, as they has signed a non-disclosure agreement with 3M.
When I heard that news, I presumed that the recall, once in force, would prevent me from easily keeping my non-reflective blue plates as souvenirs. The clock was suddenly ticking. I headed to ServiceOntario that same afternoon to have my personalized plates reattached, and to retain my blue plates for an “imminent vehicle purchase.” I figured that it would be a routine transaction, with the recall having just been announced hours before, and with the counter staff likely having not yet been briefed. I was right. I had the switch processed with no problems, and walked out with my unattached blue plates in-hand. I brought them home, washed them off, and slid them into their original bar-coded plastic bag, along with the remaining half of the ownership slip, for safe storage in the box that houses my passenger plate run when it’s not on display.
Premier Ford tersely indicated, during a press conference on March 2, that the recall of the plates would be coming at no cost to Ontario taxpayers, which implied that 3M would be covering the cost of the recall. However, he refused to elaborate any further.
I wondered: If 3M was at fault for the poor reflectivity, could they use a different, more reflective formula to make the serial numbers brighter? Perhaps 3M uses different grades of reflectivity in their numbers? Perhaps they accidentally used a lower-grade, less-reflective formula when producing this first batch of Ontario plates. Ontario isn’t the only jurisdiction to try out white reflective numbers from 3M. Many states, including Nebraska, South Dakota, Maine and Montana, all debuted flat plates with dark backgrounds and white letters.
Then, another bomb was dropped just before the weekend, on Friday March 6: The Ontario government decided to jettison the blue format entirely, and go back to a white design with blue numbers. Maybe the technology isn't quite there to make the white numbers stand out enough against the desired background in a reflective situation, so they're just switching to something that is known to work? But then again, other flat plates with white numbers, are shown to reflect in low light conditions, such as those in this picture Norm Ratcliffe sent me. He confirms that the Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana plates are reflecting a light source properly, and they are 3M products.
Another thought: The abandonment of the blue background might suggest it's the fault of the original two-tone blue design submitted to 3M by the Ontario government, as opposed to 3M's fault in manufacturing. 3M will just make what the design specs say to make. 3M didn’t design the two-tone background: The “trillium corner” motif was unveiled by the Ford government and variations of it are being used on various promotional materials. For example, here’s the bottom corner of the trillium logo that appears currently on the Government of Ontario website:
I have to wonder how much truth there is behind Ford’s “no cost to the taxpayers” remark. The non-disclosure agreement makes me wonder what funds are moving around behind the curtain. Let's say you hire a painting company to paint your house sky blue, but migrating birds start hitting it. No painting company is going to redo it for free——they just did what you ordered. They may have even suggested that it wasn't a great idea. The backfire isn't their fault.
In any case, Ontario’s blue plates were short-lived, and given the active recall, their collectible value will skyrocket. The “redesigned” white plates are confirmed to be a 3M product, and will still bear the “A Place to Grow” slogan. Given that these plates are being redesigned, produced, and rushed out to ServiceOntario outlets all within the month of March, I doubt any attention will be paid to minor collector-based complaints, such as crown vs. monogram, or changing the province name to capitals (which would run counter to the re-branding campaign that was initiated last year). Here’s a very quick-and-dirty Photoshop I created of what I imagine the new plates might be like:
The background could be plain white, but I imagine the trillium corner motif might be maintained slightly in the background. The end result, aside from embarrassment for the ruling political party, is a highly-visible light background with dark numbers, which 3M makes in vast quantities for other jurisdictions.
This story is far from over... I'll update it here once the new-new plates are rolled out. Stay tuned to this station!
Update: May 6, 2020 News outlets today reported that Ontario will no longer be proceeding with any redesigned plates. Of course, plate geeks want to know if that just means that we'll still be going flat, or using the old embossed plate format. Embossed plates they shall be, according to the Premier's statement the same day: “Going forward, we will be using the ‘Yours To Discover’ white embossed licence plate. The delamination issue with this plate has been resolved by the manufacturers with a five-year guarantee on the product.” (Quote taken from this article in the Toronto Star, May 6, 2020)
The Premier mentioned that he didn't want to spend any more money on this issue. I can see this in two ways:
COVID-19 has become a more immediate priority, and the plate redesign process has been deemed non-essential. The meetings with 3M, consultation with stakeholders, and product testing are no longer feasible during Ontario's state of emergency. The effort to pursue a redesign is no longer worth the cost.
COVID-19 provides a distraction, allowing the redesign process to be abandoned more easily. Members of the public will be less likely to clamour over the sunk cost. If #Plategate is made to go away, there will never be a better time.
Why the sudden announcement? Well, Ontario only made old-style embossed passenger plates up to CLZZ-999, which were kept in reserve. Flat plate production at 3M stopped when its plates were deemed defective, and in the meantime, only the old-style reserve plates have been issued to Ontario's passenger cars. Ontario is now in the midst of a passenger plate shortage; it will run out of plates if it spends any more time farting around with 3M. The fastest way to remedy the shortage is to resume production of old-style passenger plates at the prison-based Trilcor facility in Lindsay.
I personally welcomed the new plates. I would have liked to see 3M work the problem and come up with a solution. 3M produces reflective plates for other jurisdictions—featuring light characters on a dark background—so surely it's possible to fix Ontario's problem. But they're out of time, and it's become an embarrassment, so under the rug it goes. I hope that perhaps the redesign process could be revisited down the road, once the pandemic is no longer such a prominent barrier (or convenient cover). But Ontario has a track record of being averse to change, so I won't hold my breath!