When stopped for a traffic infraction in the United States most (all?) officers ask for license and registration. They are legally allowed to demand this information on request as a condition of having a drivers license.

My question is why is this information two separate things? Most police agencies have the ability to look this up in the patrol car. All police agencies have the ability to radio back to HQ and have someone at HQ look it up.

Car registration is tied to the license plate anyway. Isn't the presence of a plate or a lookup from a database sufficient to show registration?

Why isn't car registration tied to the license? Most drivers are going to be driving their own car or one registered to a close family member most of the time. Why are two pieces of physical information required? Is there a historical reason? A privacy reason?

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    There are PLENTY of people who drive a car not registered to them. Family members, babysitters, etc.... The whole premise of the question seems to be false, sorry
    – user4012
    Jun 18, 2018 at 21:52
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    Well, I have a license, but if I get rid of my car, I lose my license? Then I can't visit bars or use it for anything else, or fly, etc. ... and as user4012 points out, people also drive fleet cars, etc, that their employer owns. Jun 18, 2018 at 22:42
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    I read two separable questions; "Why are there two objects involved in a car license (plate and registration papers)?" and "Why are drivers and vehicles licensed separately?"
    – user9389
    Jun 18, 2018 at 23:01
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    Consider for instance every person who drives a company car or work truck. On the other hand, I have three vehicles at the moment: which one do I combine with the license? And if I sell one, or buy another, do I have to go through the whole driver's license hassle?
    – jamesqf
    Jun 19, 2018 at 6:07
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    As to "Why are there two objects involved in a car license (plate and registration papers)?" This system was established many decades before modern technology made it possible to look it up quickly (1920s to 1950s) and hasn't been changed since then.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 19, 2018 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


Why isn't car registration tied to the license?

Because the owner of the car might not be the driver of the car. For example a rental car, a company car or a car owned by a spouse but driven by both.

It is possible to own a car and not have a driving licence. I know of such cases, for example a parent who bought a car that their adult child could drive them around in.

As a side note. In the UK, drivers are not required to carry registration papers in their cars. The police have access to the national vehicle registration information and insurance databases from their patrol vehicles. I believe their vehicles mostly have automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) which alerts officers when any nearby vehicle is uninsured or reported stolen etc.

In fact, UK drivers don't even have to carry a driving licence with them. They can be required by a police officer to show a driving licence at a convenient police station within a specified number of days.

I doubt there is any technical reason that prevents US laws and police forces from doing something different from what they do now. Generally people keep doing things the way they have always done things until it becomes too obviously farcical.

  • You talk about a centralized database, which I'm not sure exists between US state registrations. It's probably easier to keep one set of rules for all people. Jun 19, 2018 at 14:15
  • @IllusiveBrian: Yes, to adopt anything like the UK model, US states would probably have to act independently without national coordination. This isn't so different, currently any EU national can drive their car into the UK, details of such non-UK cars registration etc are not available to UK police in their patrol vehicles systems AFAIK. A centralized US database therefore isn't a prerequisite for doing away with paper registration documents if you accept those same limitations. I'm not advocating the UK arrangement, just saying that things can be done differently if there is political will. Jun 19, 2018 at 14:53
  • @RedGrittyBrick Sure. I don't recommend testing it, but I believe you can usually get a ticket issued due to not carrying a license dropped if you produce the license in court (sort of like what you were saying in the UK). Jun 19, 2018 at 16:51
  • @IllusiveBrian I believe that varies from state to state, but it is certainly true in some US states.
    – phoog
    Jun 20, 2018 at 1:29

Driving licenses relate to individuals and registration data relate to the vehicles. this difference does not allow them to combine.

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