Every parent in New Jersey should thank the state Supreme Court for its unanimous decision (6-0) to uphold , which requires novice drivers (16-20 years of age) holding permits and probationary licenses under the state’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) program to affix a red decal to their license plates. Why are decals necessary?
Car crashes -- not predators, drugs, suicide, or gun violence -- are the number one killer of teens in our state and nation and in many modernized countries around the world. Research shows that graduated driver licensing, which introduce teens to driving in stages over an extended period of time in an environment that minimizes risk, is proven to reduce teen crashes and save lives. The key to GDL’s success, however, is strict enforcement. Parents must be the chief enforcer. It’s up to us to ensure that our teens do not violate the passenger, nighttime driving, cell phone/texting, and seat belt provisions.
But once our children are on the road, failure to abide by these provisions, which are specifically in place to protect teen drivers and others (AAA research shows that for every teen driver killed in a crash, two more -- their passengers, drivers of other vehicles and pedestrians -- also die), must be enforced. Police will tell you, as they did the New Jersey Teen Driver Study Commission which I chaired in 2007-2008, that being able to identify GDL holders is the single most vexing aspect of enforcing the law. Teens know this and admitted to the Commission they frequently violated the passenger restriction and curfew because of law enforcement’s inability to determine which teens are in possession of a probationary license. This problem isn’t unique to New Jersey, law enforcement officials across the nation are struggling with it as well.
And that’s why the decal is necessary. Strict enforcement of these provisions that over the past ten years have reduced teen driver and teen passenger (teens driven by their peers) deaths in New Jersey by more than 50% is essential. In Australia, where novice drivers have been required to display 5 1/2 inch x 5 1/2 inch L (learners permit) and P (probationary license holder) placards for nearly 40 years, there has been no uproar about identifying teens or predatory attacks, for that matter. Australian parents and teens are surprised by the reaction of their New Jersey counterparts, noting that the plates are meant to aid with enforcement and alert others drivers that a novice is on the road. Perhaps one teen summed it up best when it asked “how else will police know that we have license restrictions if we don’t have red P-plates?”
The New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition -- and nine other coalitions around the country established by The Allstate Foundation and the National Safety Council -- work to raise awareness about the risks teen drivers face and how GDL programs work to address that risk. While New Jersey is currently the only state in the nation to require a decal, other states are watching us closely and six have introduced legislation calling for a similar mandate. The Supreme Court’s decision is an indicator our message is being heard and making difference. Measures like the decal will make our roads safer, not just for teens, but all roadway users.
This is personal for me, not only because I lead NJ’s Coalition, but because I’m a mom. My one and only child will be taking his driving test this week. We’ve had decals on our vehicles since he got his permit last August and they’ll remain until he’s fully licensed. Yes, my husband and I are the chief enforcer of the GDL, but we want to know that once our son pulls out of the driveway, he’ll be stopped and ticketed if he violates any of the GDL provisions or other motor vehicle laws. I’d rather he get a ticket, then we get a knock on our front door. Extreme? Yes, but it’s our job to ensure he survives the most dangerous thing he’ll do in this teen years -- drive.