Vanity plates send a message in N.C.

Sherry Evans is an upbeat person who likes word challenges. Check out her license plates.

On her vintage Volkswagen bug: ZPADDODA. On her new Honda Element: INMYLMNT.

Not a pro at decoding personalized license plates? That's “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “In my element.”

In an era of mobile texting and instant messaging, personalized – also called vanity – license plates, which drivers even pay more for, are becoming increasingly popular. With just eight characters to work with, more than 9 million U.S. drivers are telling their stories, sharing hopes, dreams, hobbies and philosophies.

“It's a puzzle for other people to solve in traffic,” said Evans, 34, of Charlotte. Evans, who works in information technology at Duke Energy, has had the plate on her 1970 bug for about five years but only recently settled on the message she wanted for her Element.

She keeps a list of plates she might like to own later – depending on what she's driving.

The number of vanity plate registrations – more than 260,000 – has been rising steadily in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. But the state can't say exactly how much they have risen because registration numbers vary so much by month. Still, N.C. isn't tops for vanity plates.

Last year, in a nationwide study of personalized plates – the first and only – Virginia was No. 1 with 1,065,217 personalized license plates, or 16 percent of total registrations. N.C. ranked 16th with 248,405, or 4 percent, and S.C. came in 45th with 45,213, or 1 percent.

“Behind every one of those plates is someone's story,” said Stefan Lonce, 45, a graphic designer in upstate New York and author, “LCNS2ROM – License to Roam: Vanity License Plates and the Great Stories They Tell.”

Lonce, who is shopping for a publisher for his book, teamed with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to do the national survey. Personalized plates had never been tracked, so it's hard to say when they took off. Even in states where penetration is relatively low, Lonce – whose own plate is LCNS2ROM – sees them all over.

Personalized plates are fleeting messages whizzing by on I-485 or mysteries to solve while stuck in traffic.

Does the driver of a Toyota Scion, spotted in Huntersville, with a plate that reads “MUTZNUTZ” like pound puppies? Is the owner of a Buick Park Avenue, seen at South Boulevard and Tyvola Road with “DIEBROKE,” really living it up?

Popular culture expert Montana Miller credits vanity plate visibility to texting and how people are accustomed to leaving out vowels and mixing numbers and letters to communicate efficiently.

“Now it is more of a public statement that more people are going to understand,” said Miller, an assistant professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “It really is an identifying mark that I think attaches you to your car and kind of fills out this image and makes you stand out.”

Miller's vanity plate, DR FLYER, marries her two personas – a college prof with a Ph.D. who for 20 years also has been a trapeze artist.

Multiple meanings add to the fun. Take Lee Lane's Mini Cooper with L84TTME. A golfer or tea drinker? He said he plays golf and is trying to get his wife to, too.

“The Mini is our fun car, and we thought we'd have fun with it,” said Lane, a chemical products salesman who lives in Charlotte. “I thought it would set the car apart.”

What about TEA ROOM on a Dodge Caravan? Elizabeth White, an application processor at Davidson College, wishes she had one. That was her plan five or six years ago when she got the plate but she “gave up the dream two years ago” because of “bad timing.” “I have thought of giving it up, but I hold onto it as a kind of hope for the future,” she said.

But the stories behind thousands of other plates remain a mystery.

Is the driver of a Chevy Malibu, parked at the airport, with “DTHURTME” afraid of car accidents or a victim of bad relationships? Is the owner of a Honda Odyssey minivan marked with “2BEWITHU” with or pining for that special someone?

Meanwhile, the owner of a Gem NEV electric car, seen on Park Road at Selwyn Avenue, is obviously proud of her wheels, proclaiming “OIL$0.00.”

There is a practical upside to having a personalized plate – remembering it. That's why 15 years ago Linda Fleming got her “BY-YALL” plate, now on a Honda CRV. (BYE YALL was already taken.) And, as a pilot for US Airways, she says ‘bye a lot.

Shy drivers might not relish the attention. But Anita Grey, a freelance writer and retired teacher, is not bashful about being a grandma. When her first grandchild was born 14 years ago, proudly proclaimed on her license plate “IMABUBBE.” Grey is Jewish and “bubbe” is Yiddish for grandmother.

Once at Costco, a man – apparently equally proud of being a grandpa – leaned out his window and shouted, “Hey, Bubbe. I'm a zaydeh.”