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An Unnecessary Necessity

Remember when Stella Liebeck spilled that hot cup of McDonald’s coffee all over her lap, burned herself and then sued for an exorbitant amount of money? Some may argue this lawsuit was the beginning of the obvious, common sense warnings we see in the world around us today. From the coffee cups with a written warning the contents are hot, to tags of dress shirts warning you not to iron while wearing it, we are surrounded by seemingly unnecessary warnings.

Believe it or not, this concept is extended into the world of second division vehicle registration. In a state which offers over 100 different types of registration plates, it may not surprise you the Illinois Secretary of State offers a license plate for certain vehicles which do not actually require license plates. Yes, you read that correctly, owners of certain vehicles exempt from registration may purchase “Exempt Vehicle” license plates to display. These plates carry a one-time cost of $13 and are not transferrable to any other vehicle. Now, before you go thinking this is just another way for the state to attempt and squeeze money out of the pockets of its tax paying citizens, allow an explanation of how these plates are actually an unnecessary necessity.

The warning on the styrofoam coffee cup actually serves a similar purpose as an exempt vehicle plate. Both are displayed to prevent the mishandling of each item and reduce liability and inconvenience. The coffee cup warning informs the consumer the contents are hot and will probably hurt you if spilled. The exempt vehicle plates inform law enforcement officers the vehicle is not subject to registration and therefore should not be considered in a registration overweight investigation. Both serve a simple purpose which would not be required for those who know how to properly handle both the cup and the vehicle displaying exempt vehicle plates.

The need for these plates arose after law enforcement began having difficulty determining what types of vehicles are actually exempt from registration. Generally speaking, special mobile equipment (SME), which is defined in the Illinois Vehicle Code as “every vehicle not designed for the transportation of persons or property and only incidentally operated or moved over a highway.” The IVC then goes on to provide a non-inclusive list of equipment which meets the definition. A simplified definition would be any equipment which was built primarily to perform a function but just happens to be on wheels so it can get from point A to point B.

To help with this definition, picture a wood chipper or a mobile generator being pulled by a truck. Both of these items were designed to perform a task and just happen to have wheels attached so it can be moved around. The same applies to self-propelled cranes and other vehicles which do not conform to weight laws due to their construction and not as the result of commodities carried on it.

For quite some time, poor instruction was to blame for law enforcement officers mistaking this equipment for a vehicle which is subject to registration. To add fuel to the fire is the aforementioned, non-inclusive list of SME. The bottom line is the ultimate determination of what is and is not SME is left up to the Illinois Secretary of State. Once the SOS decides the equipment qualifies, it keeps a picture and some general information on file. A file which is kept in Springfield and not easily available to law enforcement officers on the streets of the numerous jurisdictions in the state. These two issues created the perfect storm for improper enforcement of registration requirements on SME. This is how the exempt vehicle registration plate became an unnecessary necessity.

Many of you may now be thinking “If it’s been such a problem, then why not just require exempt vehicle plates for SME?” That would seem like a simple solution except for the fact the Secretary of State cannot require a vehicle which is not required to have registration to purchase or display registration.

This is proven in vehicles such as bicycles, golf carts and other vehicles which do not require registration. The best the SOS can do is to offer these plates to those who qualify and feel the need to display them. What the Illinois Truck Enforcement Association can do is better educate our officers and industry members as we do at both our 8-hour ITEA Certification and 40hour Basic Truck Enforcement Officer courses.

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