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History of the DVLA and Registration Plates

History of the DVLA

If you have been issued a driving licence, received penalty points or paid road tax you will have dealt with the government body responsible for all of these things; the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).

Anybody who has ever got behind the wheel of a car or even applied for a provisional licence will have had correspondence with the DVLA – it has become a part of the UK driving landscape as much as garages, motorways and parking tickets.

However, the DVLA was only created less than 50 years ago in 1965 when the number of cars on the road numbered less than 10 million. There are currently 34 million vehicles on the roads today and the DVLA was created to deal with all of them.

But what is the DVLA?

The Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency does exactly what the name suggests; it is the sole maintainer of records for licensed drivers and registered vehicles in the UK.

Every driver in the UK must be licensed either with a provisional licence when they are learning to drive or a full driving licence once they have passed the test. Other, specialist licences are also required for vehicles such as lorries, buses and motorcycles among others.

The DVLA will keep track of all penalty points and any other endorsements on a driver’s licence and these can be used to help police identify illegal drivers and issue punishments for dangerous driving.

Vehicles must also be registered with the DVLA in the form of a tax disc. These notify the government the vehicle is on the road and subject to Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), more commonly referred to as road tax.

If a car is not declared to the DVLA it must be declared SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification) that means the car is being stored off-road and is not legally allowed to be driven until it is taxed.

History of the DVLA

Created in 1965 as a central hub for the nation’s growing vehicle population, the DVLA was designed to streamline the processes carried out by individual local authorities at the time. At the same time it cut down on the number of local vehicle licensing offices in favour of a more efficient and cost-effective process.

Prior to the DVLA the Motor Car Act of 1903 – created to set a speed limit of 20mph and introduce the requirement for a driving licence – required all cars to be registered so that all cars could be compiled into a single database.

As the number of cars began to grow the concept of a unique identification number for each vehicle was introduced alongside the 1903 Act. Local councils were tasked with keeping track of car owners and if a driver moved from one council’s jurisdiction to another the registration would have to be sent to the new council.

By the 1960s the increasing number of cars on the roads put a strain on the system and the workload for councils was becoming too much. To counteract this loss of efficiency a new body was formed to look after the registration of drivers and vehicles from a central hub.

The DVLA’s initial task was to take over the issuing of vehicle documents such as licences, reminders for registration based on its vast driver databases and looking after Vehicle Excise Duty payments. Over 81 local licensing centres were slowly shut down to make way for the new DVLA and everything went to the central hub and its vast databases. The DVLA was born.

Registration plates

While registration plates were not a creation of the DVLA. Introduced in 1903 with the motoring act they consisted of two letters to denote the area and a one-to-four digit code. Unfortunately by 1932 the number of available codes was running out.

The solution was to introduce an extension to the code by adding extra letters to it – but once again registrations began to run out within 30 years.

To combat this the letter at the end of registration plates became a code in itself. From 1963 the letter at the end of every registration plate was ‘A’. Every year on the January 1st the letter moved to the next in the alphabet.

The use of the letter was tweaked shortly after the DVLA came into force – although it was not responsible for registrations until 1974 – to change every six months after complaints by car dealerships that customers were waiting for the new year to buy a new car.

From 1983 this code had run to the letter Y and reverted back to A, but this time the letter appeared at the beginning of the registration plate and not at the end. This time the change came under the authority of the DVLA.

The new registration plates

The newest style of registration plates, the kind you will see on the road today on every new car, was introduced in 2001 and is slightly more complex than before.

The new registration plates are split into three sections. The first two letters show the area the car was originally registered in while the second section identifies the age of the car and will change every six months.

New number plates in January will be in the form of the last two digits in the year. For example, cars released from January 2013 will sport ‘13’, cars registered in January 2014 will use ‘14’ and so on. Cars released in September will also increase by one each year but the first digit will be the same as the one used in the previous January plus five.

For example, the plate released in January 2013 will be 13 but the plate released in September will be 63, September 2014 will be 64 and so on.

The final three letters on a registration plate are totally random. This method will last the DVLA 50 years before it will once again rethink the registration plate system.

In the meantime the DVLA also releases customised registration plates to sell at auction and raise funds. Vanity plates are a lucrative market for the DVLA but it does have a policy of banning offensive plates so that they are not seen on the road.

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