Replacement plan for Ontario’s new licence plates still in the works year after concerns raised

A hand-drawn mockup (left) and an alternate design (right) of the new version of the Ontario licence plate were contained in a Freedom of Information request filed by Global News. Government of Ontario

It has been more than a year since concerns were first raised publicly about the visibility of Ontario’s redesigned blue licence plates, but several months after the plates were ultimately sidelined in favour of the old design the government says a replacement plan is still in development.

“Blue plates continue to be valid until further notice,” Gillian Sloggett, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Government and Consumer Services Lisa Thompson, told Global News on Tuesday.

“The blue plate replacement plan is still in development as our focus has been on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the time comes, Ontarians who received the blue licence plates will receive instructions on how to replace their plates.”

Brian Patterson, president and CEO of the Ontario Safety League, is one of those who have expressed concerns over the safety issues surrounding the usage of the blue plates across the province, especially at night when there have been many instances reported of a lack of visibility of the numbers and letters.

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Patterson said while the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has been overwhelmed with a multitude of issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, he called for the plates to be fully replaced by the end of the Ford government’s mandate in 2022.

“They become invisible at times … the letters themselves disappear. There hasn’t been a fix for them because I don’t think it is fixable. I think going back to the other licence plates is a fix,” Patterson told Global News.

“If I see an impaired driver, if I see someone speeding recklessly and carelessly, I need to be able to get it right so if I can’t read the plate correctly, it just screws up the whole process down the line. I mean if I call in a correct plate number, it gives the police a number of options.”

It was in April 2019 when Ontario residents learned as part of that year’s provincial budget process the government was changing the plates.

At the time, officials said the licence plate redesign cost $89,000 but were quick to add that there could be up to $4 million in savings by changing the manufacturing and going to a universal licence plate size versus the specialty size currently being used in Ontario. It was also said that current stock would be cleared out before ordering new plates.

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Also, there were issues with the durability of some of the old stock of licence plates that predated the Ford government. For instance, there were a batch of plates that experienced peeling issues.

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The plates started to be handed out at ServiceOntario locations months later. However, in mid-February, posts on social media called attention to the problems viewing the characters on the plates. A post by a Kingston police officer late on Feb. 15, 2020, showing near-invisible letters and numbers went viral, prompting questions and concerns to be raised.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request recently obtained by Global News outlined how the government worked to respond to several media requests looking for comment, including from international organizations.

FIle photo. New Ontario licence plate. Handout

As part of the messaging at the time, the government stressed there were multiple consultations with “key stakeholders” and law enforcement agencies. Officials said the new, blue, high-definition plates were tested using “advanced plate reader technology (ALPR) under multiple visibility conditions and the plates were successfully read under those conditions.”

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An information memo relating to ALPR from Ontario Provincial Police included in the FOI request and dated Nov. 7 confirmed two tests were done by the service. Police said ALPR devices could read the plates, but (at the time of the memo at least) the service only had 35 cruisers with ALPR technology and there are only 100 cruisers across approximately 35 police services with the same capability.

Under a section entitled “risk,” there was information that was redacted, citing a provision of FOI legislation that allows refused to “disclose a record where the disclosure would reveal advice or recommendations of a public servant, any other person employed in the service of an institution or a consultant retained by an institution.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) traffic committee provided “a few items” for “consideration” on Nov. 15, 2019, with respect to the proposed licence plates design. Those comments were redacted and it’s not known what advice was provided. Also, there haven’t been recent concerns shared publicly by policing agencies with respect to the blue plates.

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Global News asked about the OACP’s comments, the risk section in the OPP memo, if those operating cruisers without ALPR devices needed to rely on their own visibility and if there were any concerns about plates remaining on the road.

Sloggett didn’t respond directly to those questions, but said the goal of the government has been to provide “a more durable licence plate product” that’s compatible with current technology.

“After thorough testing by law enforcement and other key stakeholders, alongside improvements in the durability of white “Yours to Discover” plates, we decided that it was in the best interest of Ontarians not to move forward with the redesign of Ontario’s licence plate,” she wrote.

On the afternoon of Feb. 18, 2020, documents appeared to show Premier Doug Ford met with the president and general manager of 3M Canada along with staff at the company, the company behind the new plates.

The following day, a staff member at 3M Canada emailed various revised, computer-generated renderings for the new licence plates. The email said the “best-performing options under all circumstances” would involve the use of black characters. But also contained in the email was a hand-drawn version of the licence plate. It wasn’t clear where that version of the plate came from.

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The Ontario government and 3M Canada later committed to addressing the plate issues and noted the type of plates used as part of the new design were used in multiple other jurisdictions.

“We take these concerns seriously and together have put a plan in place to deliver an enhanced new plate,” a statement by 3M Canada on Feb. 28 said.

“3M is providing material to the Province and testing is being completed by law enforcement and key stakeholders. 3M stands behind our products and has successfully partnered with other provinces to supply license plate materials for many years.”

Meanwhile, Global News asked how many of the blue plates remain on Ontario’s roads and what the time timeframe is to replace the remaining blue plates. Those questions weren’t directly answered, but Sloggett encouraged residents to not visit ServiceOntario offices due to the pandemic unless a licence plate is lost, stolen or damaged.

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