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How do car number plate readers work?

February 19, 2014
Posted in DVLA,Media,Other News — Written by Sam Ryder

There has been a spark of interest over these nifty little machines recently. As the use of number plate readers increase over the next few years there are going to be more questions from the public about that they do and what they are for, not to mention more scaremongering from those who might have to believe this is one more steps towards a 1984 dystopia.

Did you know that number plate readers were actually invented in 1976, but have come a long way since then. When previously technology was limited and things like light, vehicle speed, how the plates were spaced and even what angle they where captured could skew the reading, now some clever clogs has perfected the system that eliminates most common inaccuracies.

Since then number plate readers, or Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) to give them their proper name, have been impeccable public servants.

How number plate readers work …

Number plate recognition involves capturing a video or an image of a vehicle’s license plates and running them through a system of algorithms that converts the image to a text entry into a computer. The computers can then look up and all information in the vehicle’s history.

This is difficult to programme if you think about it. If you look at CAPTCHA images for example you can see why. Computers can only read data – as in text entry – and when confronted with an image it can only make out a bunch of pixels. Unlike the human eye it cannot pick out patterns and can therefore no read like we can. This is why this is so difficult and it takes a number of defining rules to make it possible.

1. Localisation

This algorithm determines which part of the vehicle the number plate reader looks at. Much like facial recognition of your camera phone, the localisation rule identifies key features of the vehicle and rules them out. For example, the bumper, the headlights, the mirrors, etc. Once these features have been identified and then ignored the camera is left with only the number plate to look at.

2. Sizing and Orientation

This part of the number plate reader’s algorithm accounts for distance and angular skews that may distort the image. This is the sort of thing you might see used alongside CCTV footage. It takes an image that is off angle and adjusts it into regular size and appearance. Obviously this correction makes the characters easier to read.

3. Normalisation

Like sizing and orientation this algorithm you might have previously seen alongside CCTV footage, however this corrects for blur, colour, brightness and contrast. Once again this makes the registration easier for the number plate reader to make sense of.

4. Segmentation

Faced with what we might think of a standard, front-and-centre picture of a number plate the ANPRs can really start getting to work. This part also makes it clear exactly why we have strict rules when it comes to how number plates can be displayed.

How segmentation works is be defining the boundaries in which the computer expects a character to appear in. It figuratively draws a box around each letter and uses those boxes to work out each letter individually. This is why the DVLA come down hard on anyone who changes the spacing or font on a number plate, since this stops the number plate reader doing its job!

5. OCR or Optical Character Recognition

This is the part where humans have to help a bit. Once the machine has isolated a character it is essentially left with a box of pixels that don’t make a lot of sense. Humans have to tell the number plate readers how to turn the pixels into letters by pre-programming the patterns to be expected. This is why font and size are important.

Upon recognition of these letters the computer can match the pattern to a specific letter, thus triggering an actual text entry. This obviously makes the searching and the reporting effortless on the technological side of things.

6. Analysis

This final step is so fast it is barely even a step. Using the number plate in text form it can check certain characters against their position on the number plate to check for age, area of registration and much more. It can use this to not only look up vehicle history but also add to that history. It literally takes milliseconds to do, but as you can see this function is the whole point of number plate readers in the first place.

We are now at a time when ANPRs are incredibly useful to society and really are not anything new to be scared of. In fact, they have been in wider-scale use since the 1990s and these modern versions have been very successful helping the DVLA and the police.

So why the bother? Probably because UK the most watched population in the world. In this country we have nearly 5 million CCTV cameras, which makes us the most watched population in the world. They say most Britons can’t go a regular working day within being filmed by 300 CCTV cameras. Feeling frightened? Feeling safe? No matter what side of the argument you fall on, CCTV and number plate readers are here to stay.


By . Sam is Nationla Numbers’s resident busy-body and writer. She is new to the game but she is learning fast. Keep a look out for her other content, as well as her writing which you can find across the internet.

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Introduction to Number Plate Formats

February 12, 2014
Posted in DVLA — Written by Sam Ryder

In my short time in the number plate industry I am constantly being asked what “styles” are available. Take this email I received from a customer recently:

Customer enquiry on number plate design

Obviously everyone wants to stand out and inject a little bit of personality into his or her car, but sometimes this hits a roadblock when only certain things are legal. Hopefully this fills the blanks and gives you an idea of what is allowed and why.

What is an “acrylic number plate”?

Putting it simply, an acrylic number plate is the physical slab of plastic that you attach to your car. But that is putting it very simply though. More accurately you would say it is an approved method of displaying the registration number that the DVLA have given to your vehicle.

Where can I pick up my number plate?

Like many things in this modern world, the purchase of a new set of plates is not as simple as it used to be. To try to limit vehicle crime, all suppliers and manufacturers are required to be on the DVLA RNPS (registered number plate supplier) list. In other words, you can’t pick up an acrylic plate from any Dom, Richard or Harry.

To find details of you’re nearest supplier, follow this link and see for yourself.

This isn’t only bit of red tape governing the design, manufacture and display of number plates either. Specific requirements are set out in the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations.

Obviously some of these regulations restrict how and where the public buys. There is a whole host of documents, for example, that someone will need to bring with them in order to walk out with a number plate. Not only do you need these to prove entitlement, you also need them to identify yourself.

What do I need?

One or more of the following…
1. A driving licence
2. A utility bill,
3. A bank or building society statement
4. A passport
5. A debit or credit card
6. A police warrant card
7. An armed forces identity card
8. An ID card from your country of origin if you are not a UK national.

Who says it is a free country?

Don’t panic though; I’m trying to not be scary. You do only need one of the above as long as it confirms your name and address.

You cannot ask for just any registration number of course.

To confirm you have the right to the mark, you will need to produce one of the following (again, originals, not copies)

1. A vehicle registration certificate (V5C or V5CN I)
2. An entitlement certificate (V50 or V750 NI)
3. A retention document (V778)
4. An authorisation certificate bearing the DVLA, DVA or VOSA stamp (V948).

Not as simple as it seems on the surface, is it?

What is a V948?

This form is included with the return of documents from DVLA, Swansea following a cherished transfer. In other words, you have purchased a private or personalised registration, DVLA have completed the transfer and you, therefore, require a new set of plates.

In many cases, you will have purchased your new registration plate through a reputable cherished number plate dealer (hopefully a member of the Cherished Number Dealer Association/CNDA).

As well as organising the transfer via DVLA, such dealers also offer various types of acrylics to order online. These dealers are also registered RNPS and, because they handle the original documents, can legally send you a set of number plates in the post.

Since the manufacturing processes is a skilled one requiring considerable quality control, most dealers contract out the orders. Manufacturers themselves have to be on the RNPS list too and often they package and supply the raw materials (acrylic, numbers and letters etc.) to various outlets along with the necessary associated equipment.

One manufacturer in Sheffield, Jepsons & Co, has actually been in business for 128 years and is probably the oldest maker and supplier of number plates in the world. They still even make the beautiful pressed metal black and silver plates – but these can only go on vehicles registered before 1973.

Can I do anything to make this easier?

To be honest, yes, by virtue of the Internet there are companies who will send out a number plate without the required evidence. Obviously though, just because you can legally buy them does not mean you can legally use them. Dig deep and you’ll find these are what are called “show plates” AKA “This is only for show!”

When ordering one of these the onus is on you to make sure the number plate is legal. If it isn’t then you face the full wrath of the law – which I will cover later.

The DVLA’s attention has been drawn to these companies many times since it would appear highly unlikely that the original documents are being supplied through the post. Even though this practice blows an enormous hole in the government’s declared aim to combat car crime, no serious action has been taken.

Obviously, we are all keen to buy items on the Internet with all its convenience and speed but, until and unless the DfT devises acceptable regulations for buying number plates on the net, such companies need to be brought into line.

What happens if you get caught with an illegal set of plates?

The DVLA are very clear about this, so I’ll quote them directly:

“You could be fined up to lb1,000 and your car will fail its MOT test if you drive with incorrectly displayed number plates.”

Keeping in mind that “incorrectly” can mean anything from changing certain letters to messing with the spacing, it is not something that should be risked. It depends really though on how unlucky you are, as it really depends on the discretion of the police officer who notices.

So what is allowed on a number plate?

First of all give this downloadable leaflet from the DVLA a read, as that will give you a run down of the size and heights you are allowed.

On top of this you can legally add certain flags, identifiers, borders and also the two-tone 3D effect lettering. Have a play around with the Nationla Numbers Number Plate Maker and see what looks good to you.

In closing …

During Roads Minister Robert Goodwill’s statement on the 9th of December 2013 about removing the need for an insurance policy to be shown when applying for tax, he stated “Getting rid of needless bits of paper, making changes to free up motorists time … is all part of our commitment to get rid of unnecessary red tape”

Wonder if Mr Goodwill has purchased a new set of number plates lately?

The process still seems tied up with considerable red tape. Perhaps it is time for goodwill gesture!


By . Sam is Nationla Numbers’s resident busy-body and writer. She is new to the game but she is learning fast. Keep a look out for her other content, as well as her writing which you can find across the internet.


Transfering a Private Plate: A Step-By-Step Guide

February 3, 2014
Posted in DVLA — Written by Nationla Numbers

Buying? Selling? Transferring? Regardless of what you are doing, you probably need to know how to take the private plate off of your car. If you are new to the process do not worry because it is not nearly as complicated as you may think, you just need a little patience. To make it as simple as possible though, below is the handy Nationla Numbers Guide

How to get a private plate off a car?


Things to consider

Before you even think about touching the private plate you need to understand a few things.

First of all, remember that a private plate is not a special item owned by you are a buyer or seller. All number plates in circulation in the UK are controlled, ultimately, by the DVLA. What owners have is actually a DVLA mandated right to display the private plate … you are renting it essentially. If the private plate is on a vehicle it belong to that vehicle. In other words, if the vehicle changes owners or gets scrapped so does the private plate.

Keeping that in mind, the vehicle itself needs to meet certain standards for the private plate to be moved. Specifically it needs a valid tax and MOT with ideally plenty of time left on them to allow for any transfer to go through. If the vehicle doesn’t meet these standards the private plate is stuck there. The only exception to this rule is if the vehicle is within the first 12 months of SORN.

(NOTE: There was a change in the law which meant an MOT was not required on some vehicles of a certain age, but this DOES NOT apply to the number plate. Even if the car does not require an MOT to be driveable you would still need to opt in for one to take part in a number plate transfer.)

What you need

You’ve decided that you are going to buy/sell/transfer your private plate and you now need to know is exactly what you need.

Good news, you should have most of this readily available.

To transfer any private plate to or from a car the DVLA need the documents for all vehicles involved. These documents include the V5/C logbook, the MOT certificate (if applicable, new vehicles don’t require an MOT), and a copy of the tax disc. Remember these need to be the most recent and apart from the tax disc needs to be the originals, not copies, and any and all documents need to go to the DVLA together.

The DVLA may require some additional paperwork, usually a V317. This form, “Application to transfer or retain a vehicle registration number”, see below.

To transfer or retain a private plate

The aforementioned V317 for is required for every private plate transfer. This form asks for details about the vehicles involved in the transfer request you are submitting. Each “transfer” covers one change and you do need to submit a V317 for every transfer – e.g. a vehicle to a vehicle is one transfer, a vehicle to retention is one transfer, a vehicle to vehicle to retention is two transfers.

If retaining, remember to have a NOMINEE at hand. This is the name that applies directly to your logbook. The name that appears as the “Registered Keeper” of the logbook needs to be EXACTLY THE SAME as the NOMINEE you put on the retention certificate for the private plate. If this is not the case the DVLA might, and usually do, refuse to do the transfer. This can be changed later on though for a fee of lb25, so it is fixable.

The V317 forms are completed and sent to the DVLA together with all documents as well as the correct fees. If you do forget to include any small detail, get a fee wrong, or accidently send an old version of a document the DVLA will fail the transfer and send it back to you.

How long should it take?

There is a reason we say that the best thing to be when you transfer a private plate is patience. The timescale varies depending on the type of transfer you have applied for and of course on what the DVLA’s current workload is.

General times for a vehicle to retention transfer would usually be 7-10 days, while a vehicle to vehicle transfer will likely take a little longer at around 2-3 weeks.

Assuming all the documents and fees you have sent to the DVLA are correct you should have nothing to worry about. Sit back, relax and wait for your finished private plate transfer to come through.


By . Sam is Nationla Numbers’s resident busy-body and writer. She is new to the game but she is learning fast. Keep a look out for her other content, as well as her writing with you can find across the internet.