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Lighthouses in your lane: SCDMV grows specialty license plate options

Out-of-commission historic license pates at the SCDMV headquarters in Blythewood.
Caelan Bailey
South Carolina Public Radio
Out-of-commission historic license pates at the SCDMV headquarters in Blythewood.

When you’re driving down a South Carolina road, you might see a white license plate with a colorful icon – maybe a fish, military medal, or college mascot – alongside two letters and five numbers, all sandwiched between red and blue stripes.

While under 3% of South Carolina cars sport special license plates, Executive Director of the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles Colonel Kevin Shwedo says the state’s almost 500 choices are only growing.

“If making a plate makes a person happy, then we’re than willing to make them happy,” Shwedo said.

License plates outnumber South Carolinians by almost 2:1, according to SCDMV numbers. Most of them are regular plates, with a blue Palmetto tree under the state motto “While I breathe, I hope.” It’s a 2016 change from the old orange-hued plate.

“It looked like a Carolina sunrise,” Shwedo explained. “Why did we get rid of it? Because most people couldn’t see it after about the age of thirty-five, there was no definition between the dark colors and the dark numbers.”

Specialty plates make their way onto cars via two routes: a nonprofit can submit a paid application, or the state legislature can pass a bill.

“Plates equal getting reelected and I can’t forget about that for some of our legislators,” Shwedo explained.

Sometimes legislators champion bills for individual plates, like the University of South Carolina 2022 Women’s Basketball National Champions plate passed in June. Other times, omnibus bills will carry dozens of plates to the DMV at once.

“It is probably the most bipartisan thing we do,” Shwedo said. “When you look at who asked for these plates, I can’t tell you whether it is a Republican or a Democrat.”

But standardization is still a concern. While every specialty plate used to have its own independent numbering and background, Shwedo headed the current statewide stripe design, with two letters alongside the plate number. Before, a plate with the same number could be picked up by law enforcement who could assign a ticket to the wrong state and wrong driver.

“So if you see a number one by itself, pretty good chance it’s the governor,” Shwedo said.

As for plates submitted by nonprofits, the DMV sends a portion of special plate fees back to the organization. For example, you might see a miniature painting of a classic rust-red and white-striped lighthouse alongside the letters LH – that's for Save the Light, a James Island nonprofit that works to preserve the almost 150-year-old Morris Island lighthouse.

“Jim Booth, well-known local artist, designed the plate, and we proceeded to sell them,” Save the Light Board Member Dr. Richard Beck explained. “A portion of what people pay for them on a two-year basis comes back to Save the Light, and it’s been an important fundraising tool.”

Dr. Richard Beck is a board member for Save the Light, which bought the lighthouse over 20 years ago and transferred it to the state. But Save the Light continues to partner on the offshore tower’s preservation.

"Basically [it has] been a symbol of South Carolina's maritime roots,” Beck continued. “And it’s the most beloved symbol of our roots. Well-known, seen by everybody and beloved.”

The lighthouse stopped guiding ships to port in 1962, but today special events see its solar-powered LED panels mimic a swinging beacon – that only shines towards the shore. As Save the Light looks to keep it shining with projects like combatting rust around its lantern room, the 576 Morris Island Lighthouse plates on the road help sustain those efforts.

“I have two of them,” Beck chuckled. “One for each car.”

When you turn in those plates every ten years, they’re packed and shipped to a warehouse filled with boxes and boxes of old plates.

Caelan Bailey
South Carolina Public Radio
SCDMV Warehouse Employee Dennis Barnes with boxes of turned-in license plates, the plate shredder in the background.

“It's a never-ending thing," Dennis Barnes, a SCDMV warehouse employee specializing in supply and plate-shredding, said.

Barnes feeds thousands of those plates into a hard drive shredder to avoid invalid plates on the roads, with the resulting metal shards shipped to a recycling facility (the DMV then collects recycling proceeds). That means the designs you see today might not always be around.