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Vehicle Wraps: Beyond the Installation

The first time I observed a car getting wrapped was impressive. The car was transformed to a completely different color in one session, then in another session the crew installed graphics, logos and images.

By Rick Hartwig, EHS Specialist - Government & Business Information, SGIA

It altered the look and shape of the car by running the graphics over both sides and even the windows.

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  • With regard to signage, there is no doubt that vehicle wraps can sometimes have a benefit over other fixed structure signs placed on a building or a pole. Vehicle wraps can be designed and installed relatively quickly compared to other traditional sign types, and the wrap can grab the attention of a larger population as the vehicle traverses a city. And, every stop the wrapped vehicle makes it can become a temporary billboard. But there's the issue - is that vehicle wrap just a graphic image on a car, or is it an advertising sign subject to a local sign ordinance?

    I've talked to some sign shops that offer vehicle wraps, and they sometimes tell their customers how to use the wrapped vehicles as free billboards (aside from the cost of the wrap itself) by parking the vehicle along a nearby busy street. "Turn it sideways and leave it there over the weekends," they casually suggest. Some also advised wrapping an out-of-commission truck or van to keep by the street front of a parking lot.

    Creative, yes, but this tactic may also be a really obvious violation of the lesser known sign codes that apply to vehicle wraps, temporary signs or those that ban portable signs.

    Recently I heard a discussion between a business owner and zone official about getting fined for using a parked wrapped truck as a sign on a street front. The business owner took issue with this for the fact that he felt the vehicle wrap was not "advertising" but merely identifying the business truck. Would the business owner have still parked the truck in this manner had he known about the ordinance? Could the sign shop have provided some guidelines regarding wraps for customers with commercial vehicles? It might have paid to know the general laws and rules of thumb with a vehicle wrap sign and the legal ways they can be used to promote a company's business or service.

    Some municipalities recognize the vehicle wraps as advertising signs and may have something on the books to address them. Conversely, some are silent in their codes on rules specific to vehicle wraps while in motion, simply because they are mobile and too difficult to enforce. However, most cities will have some language that can be applicable to vehicle wraps and its close cousin, the portable sign.

    Keeping It Under Wraps
    It may be allowable to have a wrap installed on a company vehicle with some rules to meet, but where it's parked at the end of the business day seems to be the bigger hurdle.

    If the district where the business is located prohibits certain types of signs, and if that parked vehicle with a wrap simulates those signs, then the business is open to a penalty for violating the code.

    For instance, in the City of San Leandro, California, the sign code prohibits vehicle signs and states "No sign shall be affixed to any vehicle or trailer on a public street or public or private property, unless the vehicle or trailer is intended to be used in its normal business capacity and not for the sole purpose of attracting business." Conspicuously parking a wrapped truck away from the business and along a busy roadway at night or on the weekends would not be "normal business capacity." And for those that would argue the wrap sign is not a "vehicle" sign, the city code also prohibits "mobile, A-frame and portable signs."

    Another example is the ordinance in Euless, Texas. Their ordinance, No. 1861 (102) Vehicle Signs, states that "a sign attached to any vehicle, truck, car, bus, trailer, boat, recreational vehicle, motorcycle or any other vehicle... whether operable or not, shall not be parked and/or decorated where the intent is to use the vehicle as advertising."

    The city of Euless does allow the use of vehicle signs, but within the code it further states "...during periods of inactivity such vehicle is not parked in the right-of-way or placed in a manner that the vehicle sign is readily visible from an adjacent right-of-way... and ...the vehicle is operable, currently registered and licensed to operate on public streets and ...the vehicle is not used as a static display, advertising a product or service."

    Even if the municipality is not roaming the streets to monitor wrapped vehicle conformance, a neighboring business who thinks it's unfair someone is getting an additional sign for free just might make a quick call to the city to complain.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Can You See Me Now?
    Beyond sign ordinances, vehicle wraps can be impacted by other laws regulating window tints and related applications. Specifically, the police need to be able to view inside a vehicle for their safety and ensure the tinting or window covers do not create a hazard while driving.

    As an example, the 2015 Virginia state law 46.2-1052, for tinting films, signs, decals and stickers on windshields, states " films may be applied to the front side windows of any motor vehicle ... that reduce the total light transmittance of such window to less than 35 percent ... no films shall be applied any window of a motor vehicle that have a reflectance of light exceeding 20 percent."

    There have been some instances where a vehicle wrap went a little too far. Recently in speaking with a few sign shops in Virginia about window tint allowance, they were not aware of the local or state limits. They heard of a couple of customers getting tickets because of their wraps, but they felt they only gave the customer what they wanted. Responsible sign shops can help their own industry and curb the need for stricter codes and penalties by knowing and following the laws and informing their customers of the same.

    Wrapping It Up
    Vehicle wraps can sometimes generate a higher view rate daily compared to fixed signs. As such, vehicle wraps are a good solution for the small or starting business. But as with any good deed (or solution), sooner or later more attention will come from those who regulate these sign types. And when there are perceived problems with the signs, the more restrictive an ordinance will get.

    There is more value in guiding your customers than just selling your customers. Some simple steps can go a long way to set you apart:

    • Find out if vehicles wraps are regulated in the local sign code, and if so, what are the legal limits?
    • Learn if there are any prohibitions about parking vehicles with vehicle wraps/signs.
    • Find out the tinting and window covering limits enforced by the applicable law enforcement agencies, and know what extent you can apply wraps.
    • Take that collected information and provide a brief fact sheet on these general points to all customers interested in a wrap for their commercial car or truck.
    And that's a wrap.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September / October 2016 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2017 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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