CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia expects to save at least $600,000 a year by switching to flat license plates that are digitally printed rather than embossed.Division of Motor Vehicles officials say the new plates are cheaper to produce and more legible than the state's existing embossed plates. They're also more environmentally friendly because they don't have to be painted.According to published reports, the state also is dropping its use of a number or first letter system to identify the expiration month. Instead, a plate's decal will indicate the expiration month. The decal's color will indicate the year, acting DMV Commissioner Steve Dale said. "West Virginia is unique in using that first letter or number system for identifying the expiration month,'' he said.When the system was established in the 1960s, "it was supposed to be a nice indicator to people of when the plate expires, although my experience is most people don't pick up on that,'' he said. "The second thing was, it's a quick indicator for law enforcement because they can say, `All plates that start with 2 should have a certain color decal.'''
The system requires the DMV to maintain 12 different quantities of standard-issue Class A license plates."When we go all-digital, we'll have a supply of generic plates in each office that won't be keyed to a particular month,'' Dale said. "When those plates are issued they'll be customized with the appropriate decal that indicates the month and year of expiration.''Embossed plates must be ordered in quantities of 10,000 to 15,000 at a time to be economical, said Joe Miller, who retired as DMV commissioner last week.Plates printed digitally can be produced one at a time."Now we normally have a six-month supply of Class A plates in stock,'' Dale said. "We can reduce quantities -- it'll be more like just-in-time delivery.''The new plates will slightly reduce the DMV's mailing cost because they are on a thinner sheet of aluminum that weighs less than the embossed plates, Dale said.The state's first digitally printed plate was the "Friends of Coal'' specialty plate, which the DMV began issuing in May 2011. The second plate, unveiled three months ago by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, celebrates West Virginia's sesquicentennial.Unlike other specialty plates, there is no additional charge for the sesquicentennial plate. Current plates can be exchanged for it at any DMV regional office or by mail at the time of renewal, or at any other time at a pro-rated fee.License plates are made by West Virginia Correctional Industries at Mount Olive Correctional Complex.