Keeping Teen Drivers Safe Through Public Health Law: Allison Curry Q&A

Oct 23, 2012, 5:34 PM

Allison Curry Allison Curry, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

A new study out this week finds New Jersey’s law requiring novice drivers to display a red decal on their license plates was effective in helping police officers enforce regulations unique to new drivers, and in preventing crashes. New Jersey is the first state in the nation to enact a decal law, which went into effect in May 2010 as part of N.J.’s Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) law. Nearly every state has a GDL law on the books, but “Kyleigh’s Law,” named for a teen driver killed in a 2006 N.J. crash, is the first one that helps support enforcement of GDL restrictions using a visible decal.

The study showed that in its first year of implementation, the New Jersey decal law prevented an estimated 1,624 crashes by probationary drivers.  Allison E. Curry, PhD, MPH, director of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was a lead author on the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study was funded by a grant from Public Health Law Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

NewPublicHealth caught up with Allison Curry to get her take on why decals work as a law to help protect the public’s health.

NewPublicHealth: Can you summarize the new study?

Allison Curry: Graduated driver licensing (GDL) was first introduced in the U.S. around the mid-1990s and since then it’s been really effective in reducing the burden of crashes on teens. New Jersey in particular has a really progressive GDL program, and it’s served as one of the models in the U.S. But even so it still has what we would still consider an unacceptable number of crashes each year. So by introducing decals, New Jersey was trying to take their law a step further in improving the effectiveness of their GDL program.

What we wanted to understand was if the decals really did have an additional safety benefit for both adolescents and other road users. The aims were to examine the effect of the decals on both the police’s ability to enforce graduated driver licensing restrictions among probationary or intermediate drivers, as well as the crash rate among intermediate drivers (those who are in the stage between licensed permit holder and full unrestricted driver). We did this by linking New Jersey’s crash and licensing database in order to compare the rate of crashes and citations in the two years before the decal requirement was implemented, compared to the year after it was implemented.

NPH: And what were the findings?

Teen Driver Source Teen Driver Source, an educational resource from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute

Allison Curry: The main finding was that over the first year after the law was implemented, decals did what they were intended to do. They decreased the rate of police-reported crashes among intermediate drivers by 9 percent. We also found that they did support the ability of police officers to enforce the GDL restrictions. The rate of GDL-related citations issued to intermediate drivers increased by 14 percent.

We also found that 1,600 probationary driver crashes were prevented. It’s important to remember that it’s not only adolescents that are safer, but also everyone else on the road—passengers, pedestrians, and other drivers. We consider this initial evidence, but we hope that this informs policymakers both in New Jersey and also U.S. and international drivers who might be considering decals to enhance their GDL laws.

NPH: What are some of the restrictions on intermediate drivers in New Jersey, that the decals help to enforce?

Allison Curry: These include night restrictions—New Jersey intermediate drivers are not supposed to be driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. That’s one. The next is passenger restrictions—they’re only allowed to be driving with one additional passenger unless their parent or guardian is present. The third requirement is mandatory seatbelt use for all occupants in the car. And the fourth one is a ban on electronic device use. They vary state to state.

NPH: Why do decals work?

Allison Curry: Graduated driver licensing is an experience-based driving program for novice drivers that helps them earn driving privileges introduced in phases. It’s designed to help protect young drivers and families through the learning to drive process, and give them the best chance possible to become good drivers. It works by keeping novice drivers out of situations we know are high-risk. Driving at night and driving with passengers have been shown to increase crash risk among teen drivers. GDL works by giving young drivers the opportunity to learn to drive in low-risk environments.

One of the issues that law enforcement face without decals is that there’s no way to identify intermediate drivers who are subject to these safety measure restrictions, just by looking at the car. That’s really the motivation behind decals. They are designed to help law enforcement identify intermediate drivers who may not be abiding by GDL restrictions. But they’re also thought to encourage compliance. If a teen driver is readily identifiable, it may make them more likely to comply with the restrictions, and less likely to engage in risky driving overall. Finally, they’re thought to help other road users identify teen drivers in the hopes that they may take more care in driving more slowly around these novice drivers.

Decals have been introduced in other countries for decades, but this is the first we’ve been able to look at whether they actually have an effect on enforcement and crashes.

NPH: What arguments, if any, have there been, against the decals? How have they been refuted?

Allison Curry: Implementation in New Jersey was controversial and there have been several repeal attempts by New Jersey legislators. Due to parental fears of teens being either profiled by police or targeted by predators. In 2011 the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice conducted a report to see if there were negative or unintended consequences of the decal requirement, and it found that decals were not jeopardizing teen driver safety in New Jersey.

More recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard a case with the argument that the law is preempted by the Federal Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act. It was also argued that the requirement violates the New Jersey Constitution. The NJ Supreme Court ruled in early August to uphold the decal requirement.

NPH: What other laws are there to prevent motor vehicle injuries among young drivers?

Allison Curry: Certainly the GDL program has really been the critical intervention thus far from a policy perspective. Also included in GDL laws are other strategies that have proven to be effective, including mandatory seatbelt laws and the national minimum drinking age laws. Some states have incorporated these into their GDL laws. Those all have been shown to be effective in reducing teen crashes. States with stronger laws tend to have lower crash rates.

NPH: What would be your advice for parents who want to keep their teens safe on the road?

Allison Curry: Parents should be using GDL as a guide to determine how they can support their young driver through the learning to drive process to ensure they will become as safe a driver as possible. Regardless of your state laws, all parents should ensure that learner drivers limit passengers to only one, limit driving after 10 p.m., always prohibit cell phone use, and insist on seat belts for every occupant on every drive. We created a website to help parents, teens, educators and policymakers. We have a whole core dedicated to outreach, so they’re always really thoughtful about translating our scientific messages for the end users. Because teen driving is something everybody goes through. 

>>Read the study.

>>Learn more about teen driver-related crashes in Teen Driver Source, a resource from a team of researchers, educators, and communicators from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.