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Playing Tag With Diplomatic Vehicles

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

The winds of change are blowing across embassy motor pools all over Washington. Sharp-eyed commuters in the nation's capital soon will be spotting the first of a bumper crop of new license plates on diplomats' cars.

The State Department's Office of Foreign Missions will be supervising the gradual change from the current style of license plates, which date from 1984, to a new version designed to make it more distinguishable from the license plates of other states. Some think the current tags too closely resemble those issued in Ohio.

Officials say there are approximately 11,619 diplomatic vehicles in use nationwide. Of that number, 6,277 are in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Of the remaining, 2,596 are in New York City for United Nations-related missions and 769 are in Los Angeles, where many countries have consular offices. The remaining tags are on vehicles in other U.S. cities where foreign governments maintain consular offices.

The cars most often seen bearing diplomatic plates tend to be big, black four-door sedans that are used by ambassadors and other senior dignitaries. But many other cars driven by lower-ranking diplomats also qualify for the special tags and one can find them parked all over town, often in specially designated parking places reserved for diplomatic cars. American diplomats overseas get similar treatment.

The State Department is spending just under $40,000 this year on the new tags, which cost less than $3 a pair to produce, according to officials. The actual production is done by prisoners at the Powhatan Correctional Center in Virginia. The 45 inmates who make the diplomatic tags receive 50 cents to $1 per hour for their labor, and they'll be making the new diplomatic plates for at least the next five years.

Before security became the paramount concern it is today, it was fairly easy to find out what cars belonged to specific embassies. A list was once published in a local newspaper matching plate codes with specific embassies. That's all changed since the advent of ongoing terrorist threats against the U.S. and other countries.

Enter "scramble codes." The State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which supervises the office dispensing the plates, is out to confuse anyone trying to match certain combinations of letters and numbers with specific embassies. Thus, "you'll not be able to figure out what country a driver is from based on the license plate," one official said. "However, law enforcement officials would be able to."

Each license plate has a so-called "diplomatic status designator." For example, there might be a "D" for diplomat, "S" for administrative staff or "C" for consular personnel. In addition, the official said, there is an assigned "country scramble code" that signifies the country the owner is from.

Once commuters start to notice the new tags, which will be phased in through the end of 2008, you can bet the experienced among them may want to keep their distance. Having a fender bender with a diplomatically-tagged vehicle, even if it's that driver's fault, sometimes results in frustration and added expense for the other driver - the one without diplomatic immunity. However, State Department officials say embassies are required to carry high levels of insurance so "the other guy" is not left holding the bag for expensive repairs. Distribution of the new tags began this week.

By Charles M. Wolfson

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