I've been playing numberplate spotting games again, looking for registration letters in sequence.
Registration letters first appeared at the start of numberplates in 1983. The letter 'A' was used for the twelve months starting 1st August 1983, then B from 1st August 1984 and so on. The process sped up in 1999 with two letter changes per year, one in March and one in September, until on 1st September 2001 the current two-digit code kicked in. The letters I, O, Q, U and Z were not used as registration letters, which means the sequence to hunt for is...
A B C D E F G H J K L M N P R S T V W X Y
This game takes a long time to play. It helps that registration letters appear on personalised numberplates as well as on old vehicles, but to work my way through the entire sequence of 21 letters still took me eight days. The DVLA reckons that only 7% of vehicles have a personalised numberplate, which helps to explain the scarcity.
I noticed while I was playing that some letters seemed to appear more often than others. J, M and S were popular, I thought, whereas waiting for an F took an age. So I decided to do a survey to check on letter popularity. I tallied all the registration letters I saw while walking the streets, and I did this for four days to get the sample size up to 450.
Here are my results.
Y came top, closely followed by R, S and T. The start of the alphabet proved a lot less common than the middle and the end. The lowest totals were for C, F and H, while even P looked oddly low compared to its neighbours. Vehicle registration letters are by no means evenly distributed.
Y R S T M W K N V L X J E P A B D G C H F
In fact what we have here are two overlapping graphs, one for 'old vehicles' and one for 'personalised plates'. Age of vehicle helps to explain why the gradient slopes upwards from left to right, roughly speaking, there being a lot more 19 year-old cars on the road than thirty-somethings. Most of the Ys I saw were old. But the varying popularity of letters on personalised plates has to be superimposed on top, and this is the more significant factor. Almost all the Ms and Rs I saw were personalised. Not many people want an F.
And this got me wondering about the most common first letters in people's names. Are there really that many first names starting with R, S and T, and so few starting with F, G and H? To try to find out I researched the Top 100 first names for boys and girls registered in 1944, 1954, 1964, 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004, then totted up how many of these started with each letter of the alphabet. To add a touch of sexist realism I halved the totals for girls names before I added them to the boys.
J is the big winner here, particularly for younger males (Jacob/Joshua/Jack) and older females (Jean/Janet/Julie). A is second, fairly consistently through time, then S (with a peak around the 70s and 80s). Meanwhile F is far less frequent, and the end of the alphabet hardly gets a look in.
J A S M C D R G L K T H B P E N F W V Y X
But this doesn't quite follow-through to the results I saw on numberplates. M and S are popular in both, and F and P noticeably subdued. Egotistical Matthews buy a lot more personalised plates than elderly Freds. But if first names really were the key driver I'd have expected to see a lot more As than Ns, for example, and in fact I saw the reverse.
One reason for the discrepancy is that drivers choose registration letters for reasons other than their name, for example because they spell words or because 'X looks cool'. Another reason is that many personalised plates appear on company vehicles so reflect the name of the business. But possibly most important is that I carried out my survey in East London where many local residents don't have Christian names but Asian ones, so K, M, R and S are common first letters and C very much isn't.
Another intriguing skew is that most of the E registrations I saw appeared to be postcode-related, and you probably wouldn't get an E hump where you live. Essentially my analysis is too rough and ready to have proven anything. But maybe don't start playing Alphabetical by Registration Letter unless you have a lot of time to spare.