OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Many people think of their license plate almost like a fingerprint, unique to them.
But for thousands of Kansans, their license plate number is shared with someone else. As Chad Dearth knows, that can be a problem.
For Dearth it all started in 2013 when he purchased his dream car, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala. That’s when he decided to get an antique plate for that antique car.
It was the worst decision he said he’s ever made.
“Get the word out,” Dearth said. “If you live in Kansas, don’t accept an antique tag.”
To understand why fast forward to 2020. That’s when Dearth received a call from a letter carrier in his old neighborhood. He lived there so long ago that his mail is no longer being forwarded.
The letter carrier told Chad that he’s been getting 7-10 letters a day from several states – many of them marked with the words “final demand.”
They were collection letters for toll violations issued by turnpike authorities up and down the East Coast.
A letter from the Rhode Island Turnpike Authority was demanding he pay $52. Dearth had never even been to Rhode Island. One letter contained a photo of what was supposedly his vehicle.
Except it was clearly a semi truck – not an Impala.
The numbers on the license plate were identical to his, but this wasn’t a plate for antique cars. It had the letters PWR printed on the plate.
Kansas assigns PWR, short for power plate, to commercial vehicles, including long-haul truckers.
Kansas is one of only a handful of states in the country that assigns identical number combinations to multiple plates.
Lee Ann Phelps, vehicle services manager for the Kansas Department of Revenue, said she had no idea why Kansas ever thought sharing plate numbers was a good idea.
She said it doesn’t affect regular license plate holders. Those numbers are unique. But specialty plates, including plates for the disabled, as well as commercial plates and dealer plates can all share numbers.
There are more than 625,000 license plates in Kansas that have at least one twin somewhere else in the state.
“If it’s 1234 and it’s a K-State plate there could be a 1234 KU plate,” Phelps said.
Some number combinations are shared by as many as 14 people.
Amazingly this wasn’t a problem until recently when, across the nation, toll roads started closing down their booths and began taking photos of license plates and sending bills in the mail.
“It does seem like those customers who are misbilled from other states get repeated bills from those states,” said Rachel Bell, spokeswoman for the Kansas Turnpike Authority. “When it’s a problem, the customer is really frustrated.”
Dearth is a prime example.
“Just ask my employees,” said Dearth who owns an auto parts accessories store in Johnson County. “They are sick of hearing about it.”
Plus he’s worried all these overdue toll bills could eventually affect his credit.
What’s really frustrating is that Dearth sold that Impala six years ago. His antique plate has been sitting in a drawer ever since.
He asked the Kansas Department of Revenue if he could give it back, but they told him antique plates belong to someone for life.
So what can he do? What he’s already been doing for the past several months: contacting the Kansas Turnpike Authority every day to see if there’s another state trying to collect a toll bill from him.
“We can typically get it resolved pretty quickly,” Bell said.
But to resolve them, Dearth needs to call the state every single day for the rest of his life since those bills aren’t being mailed to his current address.
Even the folks at the Kansas Department of Revenue admit that’s not fair.
Kansas has now contacted the trucking company that shares a plate number with Dearth and issued the company a new plate number.
For a permanent fix, the KDOR has a bill before the Legislature that will allow it to stop issuing duplicate plates and to get rid of those that already exist — a process that will most likely take years.
The bill has already sailed out of the Senate and is headed to the House. It’s expected to be signed into law by the governor.
Meanwhile, Dearth just got another toll bill linked to his name. It’s from the Delaware Turnpike Authority for $479.