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Are 3D and 4D number plates legal?

  • Parkers looks at the legality of 3D and 4D number plates
  • Find out how you keep your personalised plate legal
  • Avoid hefty fines, failed MOTs and car seizures

Written by Cat Dow Published: 7 February 2022 Updated: 7 February 2022

When you cover many miles on motorways, urban and country roads, you can’t help but notice unusual registration plates. Whether it’s a cheeky personalised plate, or a grubby beyond being read properly (which can lend you a hefty fine, btw), the boredom of driving can make us more observant.

Being human, the same applies to the traffic coppers. They notice things and more recently, Surrey’s Road Policing Unit (RPU) highlighted the number of non-compliant registration plates they’ve seized and went on to attempt to clarify things for motorists when it comes to 3D and 4D plates.

Though the conclusion for the police is to avoid using any plate which isn’t the regular two-dimensional (2D, read: flat, plastic) plate, here at Parkers we understand that motorists, who want something a bit different, will still pursue those aspirations.

So let’s look at how you stay legal with your bespoke registration plate.

What is a 3D or 4D number plate?

Most of us are familiar with 2D plates, where the printed plasticised backing attachs to a durable resin topper to withstand the wonderfully changeable weather in Blighty. These are cheap and easy-to-make but, let’s be frank, dead boring.

Three-dimensional and the curiously titled ‘4D’ number plates are the more interesting as their lettering and numbering are built up proud of the initial resin surface. Of course, we’ve seen a version of 3D number plates before, when old plates were stamped out in metal by a hand-operated tool, creating a bevelled appearance around each letter and number.

These days, plates with raised numbers and letters are gaining popularity as 3D printing technology becomes more accessible.

3D vs. 4D

3D vs. 4D
3D vs. 4D

3D plates are more common, as the tools to produce them are more widely available. The letters are cut from a polyurethane gel, creating a wet appearance. The ‘raised’ part of the plate is much softer, almost mimicking that bevelled look from classic car plates.

The characters are placed by hand and, if made correctly, bond securely to the rest of the plate.

4D number plates have a sharper, more defined look. The lettering and numbering look like building blocks, such is the depth of the raised area. This is because the letters are laser cut from a sheet of acrylic. Bonded like 3D letters, 4D plates also carry a highly glossy look—not that dissimilar to gel or shellac nail varnishes.

But let’s not fool ourselves here, 4D are essentially 3D done differently. Because the fourth dimension is time, which sadly, not even your number plate can give you.

Maths geeking aside, 4D number plates are more expensive to produce, as fewer suppliers offer them. Each letter has to be cut out individually and suppliers offer a variety of acrylic sheets, including those containing glitter. Ooh, sparkles.

Why do the police seize 3D and 4D plates if they’re legal?

Well, because the law is a bit confusing really. Contrary to popular belief, the British Standard marking isn’t a guarantee that your plate is legal. Surrey RPU commented in a Twitter thread, “Some plate manufacturers claiming they are compliant with the British Standard, when the plates have never been tested!

In addition to the British Standard requirements, there are additional regulations, specifically Regulation 11 of the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001.’

Clauses one and two of Regulation 11 state,

“1.—(1) No reflex-reflecting material may be applied to any part of a registration plate and the plate must not be treated in such a way that the characters of the registration mark become, or are caused to act as, retroreflective characters.

[F13(1A) The surface of a registration plate must not comprise or incorporate any design, pattern or texture, or be treated in any way which gives to any part of the plate the appearance of a design, pattern or texture.]

(2) A registration plate must not be treated in any other way which renders the characters of the registration mark less easily distinguishable to the eye or which would prevent or impair the making of a true photographic image of the plate through the medium of camera and film or any other device.’

Surrey RPU went on to say, ‘The DVLA has stated “The agency has not seen any evidence to show that number plates displaying raised plastic, acrylic or perspex lettering (3D/4D plates) are able to meet the requirements of either the current or new the British Standard.”‘

So 3D and 4D are illegal?

Not quite. For a short time, to avoid the costly implications of a properly created 3D number plate, some motorists were displaying 2D number plates with shading to make the letters and numbers appear 3D. In September 2021, changes came into force prohibiting the use of more than one shade of black on a plate, since ANPR and speed cameras were struggling to read the plates.

The changes in September 2021 also clarified the position on 3D and 4D plates. The Government said: ‘The new British Standard for retroreflective number plates does not state that number plates with raised characters, including 3D gel and 4D number plates, will not be permitted.’

Some disreputable and unofficial suppliers have been creating 3D and 4D number plates that don’t meet the stringent requirements around number plate legality too; sticking the letters on in a less bonded way, so they risk falling off.

What’s the final score then?

Surrey RPU concludes by stating, ‘while the .gov website states you could have raised lettering, we’re finding a significant number of 4D plates which fail to meet numerous legal requirements and therefore the driver would commit offences by fitting those plates. We recommended only fitting ‘flat’ plates.’

Unsurprisingly, suppliers of 4D number plates responded with some curt remarks to the thread, Mid Sussex Car Sales replied,

‘I’m sorry, but as a registered number plate suppler, we’ve enquired and received confirmation that our 4D number plates are fully compliant. It’s likely to be the lack of BS AU details, or incorrect spacing that makes the majority of [4D plates] illegal.’

The thread seems to target the depth of 4D plate lettering, rather than 3D plates. Therefore, we reckon if you’re gunning for something different, you’re far less likely to attract the unwanted attention of the police, if you opt for 3D number plates. However, if you do want to go all out for 4D plates, make sure you research the supplier and ensure their production is a fully compliant operation.

It’s also worth noting that something as innocuous as having dirty number plates can cop you a fine of up to £1,000, so it’s worth keeping your plates clean, whichever number plate type you choose.

Further reading

>> Green plates for green cars

>> Best snow foam for car cleaning

>> The lowdown on legal number plate