License to Kill Without a Plate to Recall by Joe Carroll

Thankfully it is not every day that cyclists find themselves tumbling to the asphalt after being hit by an automobile. Unfortunately, that was my fate last February as I was heading down Market Street toward the Embarcadero.

I was first in line in front of a minivan waiting for the light to change and had my left foot up on the Muni/pedestrian island. The right (curb) lane at this intersection is a "Right Turn Only" lane. (Note: I courteously waited on the far left side of this right lane to allow right turning vehicles to not have to wait behind me for the light to turn green - big mistake!)

As I crossed the intersection, I found myself door-to-bike with the minivan behind me that decided to go straight instead of turning right. Because of basic laws of physics, I promptly found myself being knocked off my bike as the minivan barreled ahead.

Still in shock after hitting the pavement, I had the good sense to know that it's the first car that hits you but the second car that might accidentally run you over. In beating a hasty retreat to the curb, I quickly glanced up to see the license plate as the minivan sped away. At the curb, looking over my seriously bruised shin and toasted back wheel, the license plate number became jumbled in my head. "Was it 3BXR141 or B3X1411 or ...?"

It was only days later that I found out that motor vehicles plates in California have a coding system that might have been my ticket to remembering that license plate. Most private automobiles registered in California in the last 20 years, with the exception of vanity (custom) license plates, will have three distinct sections – a number followed by three letters and than three numbers (Ex. 3ABC321). The first space will be taken up by a number between 1 and 4. On commercial vehicles you will find a number, then a letter, then five numbers (Ex. 9Z99999). Motorcycles have a number, letter and four numbers (Ex. 1Z9876).

These are the most common license plates you will see out on the road. DMV has a free booklet on all the vehicle plates (Veterans, Disabled,Congressional, etc.) for the state, including the most recent — The Ronald Reagan plate. Maybe cyclists could petition Sacramento for a simple "Share The Road" plate.

An example of what you might see as a number, letter, number sequence on a California plate. Plate image from the DMV's California License Plates and Proof of Current Registration book.
HELPFUL TIPS: Use mnemonics or memory tricks to recall the license plate. If you saw this license plate—3WBL214, maybe you would repeat to yourself, "Three Willie Brown Limos cost $214,000." Turn memorizing license plates into a game with yourself and other riding partners.

Have a writing instrument handy. My friend, Bike Dave, attaches chalk to his handle bars. He tells me it writes on almost any surface.

Obtain other pertinent information, such as make, model, color of the vehicle and description of the driver and other occupants. This will be very helpful when you file the police report.

Have 20/20 vision out on the road. If you're slightly near-sighted wear corrective glasses or contacts.

Hopefully you will never have to use this information; but if you do witness a hit-and-run involving another cyclist, pedestrian, or motorist — they will be fortunate that you got the license plate. Good luck!

Ed. Note: If you are in a hit and run case and you get the license plate, the police should take action. Please report each such incident to the SFBC's incident reporting hotline, 431-BIKE, x-7. Also you should file a police report which is available upon request at any station. [See our story, "New Hotline to Promote Bicyclists' Rights"]