Teen drivers get special plates

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state law mandating special red stickers on the license plates of the state's teenage drivers.

The law in question, Kyleigh's Law, is intended to help police enforce the state's graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws, which prohibit teenaged drivers from having passengers in the car, driving at night and using a cell phone while driving.

Under the law, novice drivers must purchase a pair of red decals for $4 and affix them to their license plates. The theory goes that police will now have an easier time identifying which drivers shouldn't have passengers in their car or drive late at night, making enforcement of the rules easier (and the streets presumably safer). (See "What young drivers need to know.")

The law had been under fire from critics who argued that the stickers could make teens the targets of sexual predators, though only one such incident has been reported thus far. And a study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that the law is unpopular and hasn't increased compliance by teenage drivers with restriction.

"The results were mixed," says IIHS spokesperson Russ Rader. "We found that the law did help police enforce graduated license restrictions, but it didn't appear to improve compliance with the law."

In other words, the stickers are helping New Jersey police spot more teenage scofflaws and write more tickets for violations, but New Jersey teens don't seem to be changing their habits, at least yet.

Is an 'L plate' in your future?

Pam Fischer, the former director of highway safety in New Jersey and one of the law's biggest proponents, says that the rules need time to take hold.

"It's a new law, and compliance takes time," she says. "One year's worth of data does not tell us definitively that it's not the answer."

As evidence that such a law can be successful, she points to other countries:

  • In Australia, whose graduated licensing laws served as a template for New Jersey's, teens graduate from an "L plate" to a sequence of color-coded "P plates" over the course of a probationary period.
  • In British Columbia, a "Learner's License" requires a sign in the rear window for drivers in the earliest phase of training.
  • In Japan, new drivers and those over the age of 75 have special stickers that must be displayed on the car.

One study found that other countries' licensing programs now have "overwhelming support," suggesting that the American public could eventually come around.

"We're well behind many other modernized countries when it comes to licensing and testing, and we're playing catch-up," says Fischer.

While the decals have passed court muster, the political atmosphere seems less forgiving. In that IIHS study, a survey of parents found a whopping 84 percent disapproved of the law.

Fischer acknowledges that there hasn't been much movement in other states to consider similar measures.

How about a "W," then?

New Jersey is not the only state in the union that can force you to buy a special license plate.

Two states, Ohio and Minnesota, have laws in place requiring the use of special plates for convicted drunk drivers. In Ohio, two DUI convictions in six years -- or a first offense of 0.17 percent blood-alcohol content or higher -- can lead a judge to stick you with a special yellow plate. A spokesperson for the state's department of public safety says that more than 4,600 such plates are currently issued in the state.

Meanwhile, Minnesota drivers with a similar pattern of drunken-driving convictions have their license plates impounded, but drivers or their families can get back so-called "whiskey plates" (starting with the letter W) with a valid driver's license. (See the possible DUI penalties in your state.)

Other states have considered such "whiskey plates" laws, but with little progress. In New York State, for instance, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz has repeatedly introduced a bill that would require drunken drivers to get special plates, but according to a spokesperson the bill is currently languishing in committee.

And such bills aren't getting any help from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which is more focused on laws requiring ignition interlock systems that prevent inebriated people from operating vehicles. (See "You can't drive drunk if your car won't start.")

"In terms of DUI plates, that's not something that MADD advocates for, and we have not seen any studies that say they're effective," says J.T. Griffin, the group's senior vice president of public policy. "MADD's not there to put a scarlet letter on an offender."

The original article can be found at CarInsurance.com:Special plates for teen drivers