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A vintage Ford, sporting the classic green mountain license plate design, being prepped for an auto show in the garage at O'Meara Ford in Northglenn on Aug. 7 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Try not to drive yourself crazy: Colorado could revert back to its old license plate color scheme as soon as 2021.

A draft bill that advanced Monday at the state Capitol would return the state’s stock plates to the dark green mountains with a white sky motif that defined Colorado for three decades until the current design took hold in 2000.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, is championing the legislation to abandon the current look — white mountains with dark green letters and sky. His bill won approval in an interim committee on transportation issues. It must clear one more hurdle before introduction in the legislature next year.

“It’s not just about the look of the plates,” Priola said. “That’s tertiary.” 

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Priola said studies indicated 4% of vehicles are not properly registered and licensed, which can create emissions issues. The hope is that the new license plates will change that by forcing motorists to switch over when they get a new vehicle.

The current license plate color scheme also fades quickly and becomes at least 50% less reflective and legible — especially at night — after 5-10 years. Therefore, the change will help make it easier for license plate readers to toll drivers on roads like E-470. It will aid law enforcement as well by letting them more efficiently identify vehicles and track motorists in situations where they are urgently seeking a suspect, such as during an Amber Alert. 

Vehicles with faded Colorado license plates, which can make tolling and law enforcement more difficult. (Provided by Kevin Priola)

“I think this has a lot of upside and hardly any downside,” Priola said.

Colorado currently offers 180 different types of license plates, but the white and green mountain design is the state’s iconic look and accounts for 80% of those issued. 

The green mountains with white sky adorned the Colorado license plate sporadically in the 1960s, but it returned permanently in 1977 and remained essentially the same for 24 years, according to Ron Ruelle, an automobilia collector from Boulder. But in 2000, the mountains switched to white — which was the original mountain motif first introduced in 1960.

State Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat who chairs the interim transportation committee, said the legislation passed by a “relatively close” margin, though he didn’t know the exact tally. He cautioned against getting too excited about the switch. 

“We’re a long way away,” he said. “We started the process today. We certainly didn’t finish it.”

Traffic and pedestrians at the intersection of Broadway and East Colfax Avenue downtown Denver. Photographed on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Under the measure, the state must exhaust its current supply of license plates before issuing the new color scheme no sooner than Jan. 1, 2021. Anyone with personalized plates would be able to keep their custom letters and numbers. The new plates would get issued at the time a new or used vehicle is purchased or transferred.

The state’s license plates are made by inmates in the corrections system and cost vehicle owners $3.78 for a set. The initial change would cost about $363,000 in taxpayer dollars to cover the cost for pre-ordering 96,000 plates, but the money would be recovered as the plates are sold. 

A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis said the Democrat has “indicated his fondness for the Pueblo chile license plate” and did not answer questions about whether he supports the color change. Through a spokeswoman, Mike Dixon, the director of the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles, declined to comment on whether he supports the idea.

Updated 9 a.m. Oct. 29, 2019: This story was updated with comment from Gov. Jared Polis’ spokesman.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.