Should we change Irish reg plates to help the car trade?

These are tough times for the motor industry. New car sales are down over 20% so far this year. We all know how the economy is doing and I guess it is not a huge surprise but the trade also blames our registration system for making a bad situation worse.

The Irish registration plate format is in many ways an excellent piece of design. It is admirably simple and conveys a lot about the car at a glance. It is also, as the Gardaí will tell you, very handy for members of the public to remember.

Unless you’re gifted you are unlikely to take in 6 or 7 random digits at a glance and remember them afterwards. But you will quite readily take in the year and county. So a witness can often clearly tell the Gardaí that they are looking for red 10-G sports car, for example. But for all its virtues it does cause problems for the trade.

80% of new car sales happen in the first six months. Buy a 12-reg car in December and in a matter of weeks it will look as if it is a year old.

Of course we know that isn’t true rationally. Many fleet buyers and commercial buyers will buy late-year vehicles to take advantage of discounts. But private buyers are driven more by perception.

This isn’t just to do with status – it is more to do with resale value. Even if they are only separated by a few weeks a 12-reg car will always look younger than an 11-reg and that will affect its value when you go to sell.

The UK system is more cryptic. Registration numbers are date-coded but not as explicitly, and they also have two separate ‘new’ plates per year – one in March and one in September. This is helpful for the trade while arguably making no difference to the consumer.

Car dealers get a boost every six months when the newer plate comes out and although the date is there for those who understand the system it doesn’t immediately mark a car out as being older than its neighbour. This reduces the sensitivity to the registration date and means that cars have a smoother rate of depreciation.

The AA recently asked its members whether they would support a change in format. A lot of the feedback was solidly in favour of the simple and easy current system.

Perhaps we could go half way by retaining the year-based date code with all its clarity but adding a code for the first and second parts of the year. Hence you might have ‘12-KY-123A’ from January, switching to ’12-KY-123B’ from July.

Another issue is again just a bit irrational but again it is based on perceived resale value. All other things being equal, most motorists would prefer to have a registration number that is from their own county.

For many people this is nonsense and doesn’t make any difference. But for enough, it does. If you are an ardent Cork hurling fan you may not be delighted to display a Tipperary plate. Because of the population mix this means that, rather bizarrely, if you put two absolutely identical cars beside each other the one with the Dublin reg-number is actually worth more on the open market.

One up for the Dubs if you like. But again it is a rather needless distortion. One idea is that for a fee a motorist could be allowed to re-register a car to their county of residence. Money for nothing as far as the state is concerned and from the motorists’ point of view there isn’t really an argument against it.

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