This Bot Posts Rejected License Plates and It's Amazing

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A rendering of a license plate reading "JUSTDGF"
One of the thousands of personalized license plates rejected by the DMV and posted by @ca_dmv_bot. On the application, the driver explained this license plate's meaning: 'Just do good friend.' (via @ca_dmv_bot)

If you’re a license plate nerd like me, when you notice a personalized license plate on the road, you turn it into a game. What does its jumble of letters and numbers mean? Did it have to get special approval by the DMV? What criteria gets used to accept or reject vanity license plates, anyway?

Enter @ca-dmv-bot, a new Twitter account that draws back the curtain on the mysterious review process for California drivers wanting to telegraph to the world, for example, that they are “CUTE AF.”

Each @ca-dmv-bot post includes the applicant’s stated explanation for their license plate, the DMV’s concerns, the decision to accept or deny, and a rendering of the plate itself. If this sounds like boring government bureaucracy, may I direct you to drivers’ valiant, creative or altogether stupid attempts at deceiving the almighty DMV censors:

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The bot is the work of a Silicon Valley 15-year-old, going by “RJ,” who recently discovered a trove of flagged DMV applications from 2015-2016 — the result of a public records request by journalist Samuel Braslow for a fascinating piece in Los Angeles Magazine. Without anything to do one weekend, and with “an insatiable curiosity of the inner workings of quite literally everything,” RJ built the bot in one day.

One month later, it now posts juvenile license plate attempts like “TRD FURY” and “ASSMNKY” to over 25,000 followers, 24 hours a day.

“I expected it to reach 1,000 followers at maximum, and slowly die off after that,” RJ tells me via email. Instead, it’s gotten so big that he has friends in different time zones to help approve generated plates for posting. (He and his friend deny “plates that are barely disguised racial slurs or epithets, or customer/DMV comments containing similar obscene content.”)

For the most part, it seems drivers on California's great highways want their cars to broadcast drugs and sex, for which there are a zillion slang terms. And yes, the four DMV employees who constitute the review committee actually consult Urban Dictionary. Sometimes this takes a relatively benign request and makes it dirty.

And sometimes the DMV's apparent sense of propriety brings up larger questions about gender and natural biological processes.

Even backwards spellings or scrambled letters catch the DMV’s eagle eye:

And don’t even think about alternate acronyms...

...or any variation on “Deez”:

Numbers like 420 are typically rejected, as is 13 for gang-related purposes. The number 69 is only permitted on 1969 model vehicles (this is apparently a big problem; it merits special mention on the DMV's list of banned subject matter). Local area codes are a no-no, for some reason. Exceptions to rules are sometimes granted, though, and occasionally, a truly majestic application squeaks through:

The @ca_dmv_bot still has over 23,000 applications yet to post, so fans of Herb Caen’s three-dot license plate errata, the recent Friends of Asheville Recreational Trails plate, or Braslow’s 2019 Los Angeles magazine story have plenty of fun ahead.

As a high school sophomore, RJ doesn’t drive yet, and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get a personalized license plate himself. But “I'm really happy that I can make other people laugh,” he says. “I'm also happy that so many people, too, have a curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes of things, no matter what it is.”

In this case, what goes on behind the scenes at the DMV just happens to be government employees evaluating the redeeming social value of “ASSBUTT.”

You can visit the ca-dmv-bot here, and see its GitHub page here.