HACKENSACK - Hoping to encourage still more reductions in teen traffic deaths, New Jersey formally unveiled its latest safety weapon Wednesday - a tiny red decal.
The 1- by 1 ½-inch, Velcro-backed rectangle must be attached to front and rear license plates of cars driven by anyone with a learner's permit or a probationary licensee under 21 enrolled in the state's Graduated Driver License program.
When this restriction takes effect May 1, New Jersey becomes the first state to mandate these novice driver identifiers. Speaking at a Motor Vehicle Commission news conference in Freehold, state Attorney General Paula Dow said they will give police probable cause to stop teens believed to be violating GDL restrictions.
"Stopping a driver for a potential GDL violation should never be based on the fact a driver appears young (or) is leaving a school parking lot," Dow explained.
Studies show that teens in such countries as Great Britain, Germany and Japan, which use teen identifiers, have not been targeted by predators, Dow said.
"Identifiers save lives because teens are more likely to drive safely and stay compliant with the law if they know their cars are easily identified," she added. "The benefits far outweigh the risks."
New Jersey's GDL law restricts the number of passengers in a vehicle operated by a teen with a permit or provisional license and, as of May 1, it bans them from driving from 11:01 p.m. to 5 a.m. Driving with hands-free or hand-held cell phones or iPods also is forbidden.
State Highway Traffic Safety Division Director Pam Fischer said the GDL law and the debate over decals helped to reduce teen driver and passenger deaths from 68 in 2007 to 58 in 2008 and 44 last year. More than 6,000 teens are killed annually on the nation's roads.
"More people, including parents, are now aware of the dangers than ever before," Fischer said.
The decals, which go on sale April 12, can be removed to allow adults to drive the family car without fear of being mistaken for novices, said Raymond Martinez, the state's new Motor Vehicle Commission chief administrator.
"We're the first state to do this, which makes sense, because New Jersey is such a well-traveled state," said Martinez, who once headed the New York State Motor Vehicle Department.
Fischer emphasized that teens 18 and older who have successfully completed one year of probationary driving are no longer required to comply with GDL restrictions, including the decal rule, if they achieve adult driving status.
New Jersey's experience with decals is being monitored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has funded a study to gauge its effectiveness, Fischer said.