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Special plates for teen drivers



Special license plates for teenage driversLittle red stickers on the license plates of teenage drivers are apparently saving lives in New Jersey.

Data released Tuesday by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia estimates 1,624 crashes were prevented in the year after the passage of Kyleigh's Law, which helps police enforce the state's graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws.

Teenaged drivers are prohibited from having passengers in the car, driving at night and using a cell phone while driving. The $4 decal helps police spot those drivers. (See "What young drivers need to know.")

The study found that police wrote 14 percent more GDL-related tickets in the year after the law was passed, and that the crash rate of cars involving intermediate drivers fell 9 percent.

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 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, points to similar successes in 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 New Jersey decals survived a court challenge in August, 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."


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