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Amidst the fracas surrounding non-regulation number plates and enforcement, Road Transport Department (JPJ) director-general Datuk Seri Ismail Ahmad has revealed in an exclusive interview with BH Auto that the government is considering engaging the help of the Prison Department to produce standardised vehicle number plates.

Under the initiative, dubbed the National Plate Policy (n-plate), all number plates will come from one source and meet a set specification, thereby eliminating the age-old issue of non-regulation number plates being produced at accessory and signage shops. The policy is targeted to begin mid-next year, and JPJ will handle the distribution of the plates, the report said.

Engaging the Prison Department for the production of number plates would help keep costs low, as well as generate income for the department and the inmates, Ismail told BH Auto.

Prisoners in the US and Canada have been making number plates for years – in fact, number plate production is among the more profitable businesses under the Alabama Department of Corrections’ prison industry programme, the publication reported.

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Prisoners in New Jersey, Florida, Ohio and Alabama produce over seven million number plates per year. Florida State Prison’s inmates are capable of producing 30,000 plates a day – that’s 4.5 million plates a year, BH Auto added.

“(Translated) There are many factors to consider before we launch this new policy, and we will discuss with the Prison Department on how we can realise this proposal,” BH Auto quoted Ismail as saying. “I also need to discuss the issue in depth with the Transport minister because this is a big change.”

JPJ is also apparently planning to revive the idea of electronic number plates, or e-plates, as part of the standardised n-plate’s launch next year. There is a possibility that the n-plates could be equipped with RFID tags, Ismail told BH Auto.

“(Translated) Electronic plates are also one of the things we’re considering. I can’t reveal much because we have not finalised this proposal yet,” he said. The RFID tags contain data such as registration number, owner’s details, make, model, colour, road tax and insurance details, possibly eliminating the need for road tax stickers.

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The subject of e-plates surfaced as early as late-2006 – they were touted at the time as the equivalent of a MyKad for cars, in an attempt to deter car theft.

In early-2007, it emerged that the government was considering the installation of 700 surveillance cameras nationwide. The cameras would be equipped with RFID scanners, allowing them to read the e-plates.

The chapter then faded into relative obscurity – until last week, when it was reported that the police are set to use Automated Number Plate Recognition scanners at entry points into the country, to identify foreign vehicles with unsettled summonses.

While the standardisation of number plates will put any qualms of legibility and conformity to rest, we wonder how much these new plates will cost (let alone the electronic RFID-equipped ones), and how efficiently they can be distributed to vehicle owners. And while it shouldn’t be too much of a problem with newly-registered cars, will there be a reasonable grace period for the rest of us to swap our ‘old’ plates for the new ones?