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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 11 | December 15, 2011 Subscribe

New Jersey teen decals boost citations, not compliance

A New Jersey law intended to help police enforce graduated licensing restrictions by requiring young drivers to display special decals is unpopular, widely flouted, and hasn't led to better compliance with the restrictions, an Institute study has found.

Still, citations for graduated licensing violations went up after the law went into effect, suggesting the decals are resulting in better enforcement.

"Decals seem to aid in the enforcement of graduated licensing restrictions, but New Jersey teens tell us they haven't been violating any less," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research. "And when we checked out student vehicles at 4 high schools, we found that at 3 of them, the vast majority of teen drivers weren't using the decals."

Since May 1, 2010, New Jersey has required all drivers younger than 21 with learner's permits or probationary licenses to display red reflective decals on their license plates when they drive.

The requirement is part of "Kyleigh's Law," named after a teenage girl who was killed while riding as a passenger in another teen's vehicle in violation of graduated licensing restrictions. In addition to mandating decals, the law also moved the curfew for teen drivers from midnight to 11 p.m. and did away with a sibling exception to the 1-passenger limit.

The theory behind the decals is that providing police with an easy way to spot a probationary license or learner's permit holder will help them enforce graduated licensing restrictions. Proponents also say teens are more likely to comply with restrictions if they know they can be readily identified.

New Jersey has long had one of the strictest and most successful graduated licensing systems in the country. It's the only state where a teenager can't get a license, even a restricted one, before age 17. However, the decal requirement, the first in the United States, has proved controversial, and some state legislators have vowed to repeal it. Opponents say it makes teenagers easy targets for sexual predators.

In April, following a survey of all law enforcement agencies across the state requested by Gov. Chris Christie, the New Jersey attorney general identified one case of a teenager who alleged that she was pulled over by a man posing as an officer. When she refused to give him her phone number, the man acknowledged he wasn't an officer and drove away, the teen said. The driver quoted the man as saying he had stopped her because of the decal. No other case of a teen being targeted because of the decals was reported.

To gauge opinions about the decal requirement and its effect on compliance with teen driving restrictions, researchers conducted telephone surveys immediately before it went into effect and about a year later. A total of 655 parents of probationary license holders and 501 parents of learner's permit holders were interviewed in 2010 and 700 parents of probationary license holders and 283 parents of learner's permit holders in 2011. More than 400 teens with probationary licenses were surveyed each time.

Researchers also observed rates of decal use among students driving to 4 high schools in different counties and compared the number of citations for violations of graduated licensing restrictions before and after the decal requirement went into effect.

Opinions about decals for probationary license holders were mostly negative before the requirement went into effect, and disapproval increased substantially afterward. In 2011, 75 percent of parents of learner's permit holders, 83 percent of parents of probationary license holders, and 90 percent of teenagers with probationary licenses disapproved of decals. Opinions for learner's permit holders were more positive, but even that requirement met with the disapproval of about two-thirds of both sets of parents.

Among the common reasons parents of probationary license holders cited for opposing the decals were concerns about teens being profiled or targeted by other drivers (41 percent in the 2011 survey) or police (14 percent), identifying or drawing negative attention to teen drivers (28 percent), and the risk of predators (23 percent).

Teens were asked how often they violated probationary driving restrictions in the past month. Before the decals, 17 percent said they violated the nighttime driving prohibition. After the decal requirement, 57 percent said they had. (Even if Kyleigh's Law hadn't changed the curfew from midnight to 11 p.m., more teens would have been in violation post-decals, with 36 percent saying they drove after midnight.) Before the decals, 41 percent said they violated the passenger restriction. Afterward, 56 percent did. Reports of talking on a cellphone or texting while driving changed little.

Researchers found low rates of decal use. Observations were done at high schools in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011. Use increased somewhat at 2 schools between the 2 surveys and fell slightly at the other 2. Only about a quarter of teen drivers at 2 of the schools were displaying decals in the spring. At another high school, one-third of student vehicles had decals, and at the fourth 64 percent did.

Citations for graduated licensing violations nearly doubled in the year after Kyleigh's Law took effect compared with the year before. Excluding decal violations, citations rose 52 percent.

That increase seems to indicate that the decals do aid in enforcement. However, other aspects of Kyleigh's Law, more attention to teen drivers amid the controversy, and unrelated enforcement may have played a role.

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