Young Drivers' License Plate Decals Roil Teens and Parents

GDL decal on a license plateNJ Motor Vehicle Commission
GDL decal on a license plate

Every time 17-year-old Haley Callaway gets behind the wheel of her mother's silver Toyota, she is breaking New Jersey law.

With her mother's consent, Callaway refuses to comply with a new state statute that requires all probationary drivers under age 21 to affix a red decal to their license plates whenever they drive.

"It labels me as a minor," said Callaway. "Someone could stalk me in a parking lot, then follow me home."

Known as Kyleigh's Law -- named after Kyleigh D'Alessio, a 16-year-old New Jersey girl killed in a 2006 car accident that also ended the life of the teen driver and injured two others -- the decal mandate is New Jersey's first-in-the-nation attempt to make young drivers known to law enforcement by marking their vehicles.

But barely six weeks after taking effect, many say the 1-by-1½-inch red removable decals are worse than being branded by a scarlet letter. Fewer than half of the 250,000 young drivers covered by Kyleigh's Law have even bothered to purchase the decals, which cost $4 for a pair, and lawmakers in both houses of the state government have introduced bills to repeal the new law.

Some 6,000 teens die in car accidents nationwide each year, and studies show that drivers are most accident prone in their first two years on the road. So, nearly a decade ago, New Jersey instituted a Graduated Driver License program, with a curfew and limits on the number and ages of passengers who could be in a provisional driver's vehicle.

But while the program has reduced fatal accidents among 17-year-old drivers by 25 percent, police have struggled to enforce the law, finding it difficult to do anything but guess whether a young-looking motorist was breaking the law by driving after curfew or ferrying too many young passengers.

All but one state, North Dakota, has some variation of the Graduated Driver License program, and legislation is afoot in Washington that would standardize the GDL laws nationwide.

With Kyleigh's Law, New Jersey became the first to address the problem of enforcement by mandating the decals.

"We could not afford to lose one more teen to a car crash," said Pam Fischer, director of the state's division of highway traffic safety and chair of a commission that devised the decal law after studying the problem over six months.

The commission also recommended changes that became a companion law to Kyleigh's Law, moving the curfew on probationary drivers even earlier, to 11 p.m. from midnight, and imposing a single-minor passenger limitation.

Decals, Curfews for N.J. Teen Drivers

In New Jersey, drivers over 18 can earn a basic license after a one-year probationary period in good standing.

Tom Goodwin, a Republican state senator who authored one of the bills attempting to repeal Kyleigh's Law, calls the law a case of "good intentions, but unintended consequences."

"This red sticker attaches a bull's eye directly on their cars," he said

Priscilla McAleney, mother to teen driver Abby McAleney, said she supports her daughter's decision to forego the decals.

"I just don't want somebody seeing her car in the parking lot," McAleney said. "There's a 50/50 chance of it being a 17-year-old girl, and they can look in the car and tell it's a 17-year-old girl by what's in the car.''

Hamilton, N.J., teen Tim Andres said he's complying with the decal law, but only reluctantly.

"I do feel more at risk," he said, concerned that if he became lost while driving in nearby Trenton's more troubled areas, he'd become a target.

While the decals are removable, he said he wouldn't want to stop the car to peel them off if he was already feeling vulnerable.

Though he feels his neighborhood is safe, he said anyone who drives by a home with a teen whose car has the stickers, would know that a youth lives there. And like many other teens and parents, he worries that the decals allow police to profile teens, a sticky issue given state history.

In the late 1990s, the New Jersey State Police became embroiled in controversy amid allegations that its officers were racially profiling motorists, which led to federal monitoring of the state police force.

Kyleigh's Law Sparks Opposition

Parents and teens opposed to Kyleigh's Law have organized on several Facebook pages, which have been viewed by thousands. And Goodwin is circulating a petition opposing the law.

The state's Fischer says she doesn't understand the controversy. After all, driving is not a right, it's a privilege, she said, and if not handled responsibly, can lead to dire consequences.

"People need to understand that a teenager with a car full of kids who isn't paying attention, is not only a risk for themselves and their passengers but everybody else out there,'' she said.

When Fischer's commission studied the issue, they found that several other countries required new drivers to be identified with some type of decal on their vehicles. Australia, she noted, has been requiring new driver decals for decades, with no reports of the stickers making targets out of their users.

"We don't need decals to see young people in cars. All that the decal says is that a young person is a new driver, they're still a young person (with the sticker or not)," said Fischer, who added that today's youths are more visible in the world than ever, broadcasting their whereabouts regularly through social networking sites.

It's too soon to tell if New Jersey's new decals are having any effect. So far, just 14 drivers statewide have been cited with the $100 violation for not displaying the decals, according to a spokesman from the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.

Callaway, who is about to graduate from Montclair High School, says she's a cautious driver who doesn't speed and, so far, has never been pulled over. But if she does get tagged for not having decals, she said, she hopes her mom will pay the fine.