Do Doctors Want 'MD' on Their License Plates?

Christine Lehmann, MA

September 02, 2022

Many years ago, it was common to see an MD license plate or emblem on physician cars when they made house calls — which tapered off to 1% by 1980. Back then, doctors needed to park their cars outside patients' homes and bring their "black bags" inside. The MD plate or emblem allowed doctors to park without fear of being ticketed by law enforcement.

But times have changed — doctors no longer make house calls and the desirability of having 'MD' on one's license plate has plummeted. More than 4200 US physicians responded to a recent Medscape poll, and a whopping 92% said they don't have MD on their license plates. Of those, the majority (60%) said it was because they don't want strangers don't know they're physicians. There was little difference in the 92% across gender, age, or specialty.

The minority who had MD on their license plates had a completely different view. They said they were proud of being physicians (52%) and didn't mind letting the world know that. Just about a third said they need the MD license to park legally to treat patients and 22% said they respond to emergencies.

We asked the question because having MD on license plates can allow doctors in some states to exceed the speed limit if they're responding to emergencies or park in restricted spaces.  But many doctors prefer to not publicize their MD status because they fear that strangers may assume they're wealthy and try to take advantage of them financially or sue them for something frivolous. They also worry that people addicted to drugs/prescription meds may try to break in and steal medications that they believe may be in the car.

Who Sells MD License Plates?

The American Medical Association sold 'MD' brass emblems to physicians as early as 1919 that they could display on their cars. One was advertised in JAMA in 1925 for $1.50. Cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Columbus, Ohio, established an agreement with city officials that physicians using these emblems had the right of way over ordinary traffic.

Physicians today can order customized plates through their local motor vehicle departments. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators says there are currently 9.7 million personalized plates in the US.

Doctors pay extra for these customized physician license plates. The fees range from $60 in New York and $50 in New Jersey, to $29.80 in Tennessee for plates for licensed trauma physicians.  

Why Most Docs Say Displaying MD Is Too Risky

Doctors who don't want strangers to know they're MDs often said it was because people assume doctors are wealthy and will try to take advantage of them. Some were afraid of being sued, especially if they are involved in even a minor car accident, while others were afraid of being ripped off by vendors.

"I never tell anyone I am a physician. When I built my last two houses, I asked the architects to remove the word "Doctor" from the header on the drawings (a home for Doctor and Mrs…). That saved me at least 10-15% on bids from the various sub-contractors," commented a physician in Kansas.

I personally don't flaunt it during financial transactions because a lot of people perceive MD = Money + Dupable.

Another 35% of respondents said they were afraid that they or their car would be targeted. That has happened to some doctors with MD license plates. Nearly one in 10 respondents reported having a problem because of the 'MD' plates: they were ticketed for parking illegally when they responded to emergencies and/or they were robbed or had their car broken into. 

"Broadcasting that you are a doctor to anyone and everyone would make you a magnet for theft, lawsuits, and all sorts of other nonsense," commented a physician in New Jersey.

A few physicians pointed out that they don't need the MD license plates for parking because their hospitals provided them with placards or decals.

However, some doctors with MD license plates said they needed them for parking and business purposes. Younger doctors (under age 45) were nearly 20% more likely to say they needed them for this reason than doctors age 45 and older (53% v 35%).

Should Doctors Have Special Driving Privileges?

The question comes up occasionally related to state laws, and, in the case of California, the proposal was first met with resistance by local law enforcement.

The controversy started when the California Medical Association announced to its members in 2004 that they could exceed most speed limits in emergencies if they displayed an 'MD/DO' sticker on their cars.

The CMA referred to a state law enacted in 1959 that entitled physicians on their way to medical emergencies to drive faster than the posted speed limit on city streets and rural roads.

Former CMA CEO Jack Lewin said he thought that local patrol officers would be "sympathetic to doctors who drive in carpool lanes or on the shoulder on their way to a medical emergency," the Los Angeles Times reported.

The California Highway Patrol pushed back, saying CMA was misinterpreting the law. "The existing law does not allow doctors to exceed the state's maximum speed, which is 65 mph in some places and 70 mph in others," said CHP's former commissioner D.O. Helmick, the Times reported. It only allows them to go faster than the posted speed when it is lower than that, he added.

Helmick also said it's still illegal for physicians to use emergency vehicle lanes or drive in carpool lanes without meeting passenger requirements, according to the Times.

The CMA reached an agreement with CHP for doctors to use the MD/DO emblem in emergencies as long as they abide by certain conditions. The emergency speeding exemption doesn't apply to freeways and a physician can't exceed the state maximum speed limit. Physicians should also be aware that the exemption doesn't apply to other traffic laws or if they drive in a reckless manner that endangers the safety of others, says the CMA.

Other states such as New Jersey have enacted laws that allow doctors to avoid being ticketed if they exceed the speed limit on their way to an emergency. The New Jersey law states, however, that highway patrol officers may inspect a doctor's vehicle registration and driver's license before letting them proceed to their destination.

Are Docs as Reluctant to Put MD on Credit Cards?

Physicians were nearly three times as likely to have MD listed after their names on their credit cards than on their license plates (23% v 8%).

Many doctors refuse to use their MD credential for financial transactions because they think it makes them a target for scam or hacking. In fact, that was the main reason respondents cited for not putting MD after their names on their credit cards.

One physician in Tennessee commented, "I personally don't flaunt it during financial transactions because a lot of people perceive MD = Money + Dupable."

Doctors younger than 45 were more worried than those age 45 and older that their friends would think putting MD on their credit cards was "over the top" (32% v 14%).

A doctor in Florida commented, "I've considered putting 'Dr.' on my cards, but titles are not an option on my main cards. Putting the degree though? I find that weird on a card that isn't your business card."

But not everyone felt that way — 34% of respondents said they always put MD on their credit cards and other financial transactions. This was slightly more the case for doctors outside the United States than in the US (41% v 31%).

A physician in New York commented, "I used MD on the business credit cards, business loans, business bank accounts for my business use under my business name. How can you not do that?"

Nearly 1 in 5 doctors who put MD on their credit cards said they wanted vendors to know they're doctors. Primary care physicians were more likely to say that than specialists (25% v 13%).

The good news for physicians with MD listed on their credit cards is that 90% of respondents said they have not had any problems because of it.

Christine Lehmann, MA, is a senior editor and writer for Medscape Business of Medicine based in the Washington, DC area. She has been published in WebMD News, Psychiatric News, and The Washington Post. Contact Christine at clehmann@medscape or via Twitter @writing_health

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