Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Tuesday, January 2, 2001

Quick: What's your license plate number? If you're like most New Yorkers, you probably can't remember.

That may change soon. The new Empire State plate that debuts this week will bear a sequence supposedly easier to memorize because it separates three letters from four numbers by a silhouette of New York. The current system scrambles six characters made up of letters and numbers together with no apparent pattern.

The new plates will replace the legion of worn and battered Statue of Liberty plates on New York highways, some of which are at least a decade old.

``Some are dented, some are wearing out and some are cracking,'' DMV spokesman Kenneth T. Brown said of the plate series first issued in 1986. In the intervening 14 years, many New Yorkers have transferred the same plates to each new vehicle they purchased to save on registration fees.

The new Empire State plates offer a more inclusive vision of the state than the old one that relied solely on a Manhattan icon. In her place is an indigo-and-bright blue montage of Niagara Falls, the Adirondack Mountains and the skyline of Manhattan.

The Department of Motor Vehicles also hopes the new plates will help police nab criminals. The plates are printed on recyclable aluminum that is highly reflective at night, which will make their numbers much easier for everyone -- particularly police -- to read.

``It will help law enforcement officers to deal with alleged criminals seeking to flee the scene of the crime,'' said Joe Picchi, DMV's director of communications.

The new plates, which carry a dark blue band with the words The Empire State, were to be issued starting the first day of the new year to those New Yorkers applying for new registrations.

Over the next two years, the new version also will replace the existing plates on more than 10.5 million vehicles that currently sport the Statue of Liberty. The first replacements are set to be issued starting Feb. 1.

The DMV expects to continue issuing the new plates to drivers who re-register until approximately February 2003. Drivers whose registrations expire prior to Feb. 1 will continue to use the old Statue of Liberty plates until their next reregistration, when they will be issued their Empire State plates.

The redesign also is an effort to eliminate plates that have expired or are fraudulent. The DMV anticipates that by September 2003, when the introduction of the Empire State plates is virtually complete, those illegal Statue of Liberty plates will be much easier to spot. Between 400,000 and 700,000 vehicles now on the road are believed to have unlawful plates.

At the DMV office on South Pearl Street last week, there were some who applauded the new design while others proclaimed their loyalty to the old Statue of Liberty style.

``I like the Statue of Liberty because of the symbolism,'' said Angela Cote of South Colonie, who was renewing plates that she has had since 1996.

But Keith Portee of Albany warmed to the Empire State plate as he gazed at a blow-up of it.

``It's definitely more easy to read,'' he said. ``It definitely sets it apart now.''

FACTS:NEW EMPIRE STATE PLATE WHEN: Starting Jan. 1 for new registrations; starting Feb. 1 for re-registrations. COST: $5.50 replacement fee on top of the motorist's renewal fee, which varies with the weight of the vehicle. A motorist with a standard-issue plate who chooses to keep a current number will have to pay a one-time fee of $20 on top of the replacement and renewal fee.