Comment: Car makers have a solution on their plates

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The Independent Online
Car makers have a solution on their plates

The annual August car sales binge, a phenomenon driven largely by the desire of private motorists to ensure their driveway is the first in the street to boast the new registration letter, has long been a double-edged sword for the motor industry.

On the one hand it guarantees bumper sales which, with a following wind, will set the scene for a buoyant market through to Christmas. On the other, manufacturers have the pain and expense of having to build and stock a quarter of their annual production and then shift it in just 31 days.

This year the industry has borne the usual pain but the reward has not been forthcoming. Even though August sales were the second-highest on record they did not live up to dealers' expectations, despite massive promotional campaigns. That has provided more than enough ammunition for the industry to bang on the Government's door calling for a change.

The car makers are mainly to blame for their current predicament since it was they who suggested that the year indentifier be changed from January to August after discovering that drivers were not keen on trudging through snow to buy a new motor. Nevertheless, the system is clearly a mess. Nobody likes the idea of changing number plates once a year in the middle of summer except the police who find it handy for catching villains. What most people at the scene of a crime remember is not the make of car but its colour and letter prefix.

The problem lies in what to replace it with. The Department of Transport is about to publish a consultative document listing a range of options. The one preferred by the industry is to move to quarterly changes in the letter identifier. The problem with this is that the alphabet will be used up four times more quickly unless double lettering is introduced - perhaps one letter at the beginning to denote region and the other at the end to denote year.

That sounds like a recipe for an even bigger mess, serving neither to promote the cachet that comes with owning a new car nor the legitimate interests of the police. Maybe a better idea would be to ignore both the carmakers and the police altogether and henceforth attach the number plate, not to the car, but to the driver who would then keep it for life. Or is that too simple?