RWJF Year in Research: An Interview with Allison Elizabeth Curry

Voted No. 1 Most Influential Research Article of 2012, Curry directs a project to evaluate the effectiveness of the decal provision of New Jersey's graduated driver licensing law.

    • February 28, 2013

Allison E. Curry, Pfeiffer MR, Localio R, and Durbin DR are the authors of Graduated Driver Licensing Decal Law, published in the October 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations Public Health Law Research initiative.

Messages like this cannot sit in a scientific journal for somebody to read a year from now."

What was the inspiration for this studythe critical knowledge gap you were trying to fill or the challenge you were trying to address?

From a public health perspective, motor vehicle crashes are the nation’s leading cause of death and disability for teens. Graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws historically have been the single most effective intervention at reducing teen crashes, and New Jersey has been really progressive in terms of its GDL system. It has the highest age at licensure, and one of the lowest rates of crash fatalities. It’s also the first state with a provision requiring novice drivers who are under 21 to display a decal on their license plates, so they’re more visible to police.

Originally, we were inspired by New Jersey’s out-of-the-box efforts in terms trying to further enhance their GDL system. And then once we looked into it, we realized this idea of “vehicle identifiers” has existed in other countries for decades, and yet it hasn’t been evaluated for effectiveness. I think there was a critical gap in knowing whether these vehicle identifiers or decals even have safety benefits. So we thought this was a unique opportunity to conduct the first rigorous evaluation of a vehicle identifier provision, and to inform this debate with objective evidence.

In a nutshell, what were the key findings and why are they significant?

We had basically three main findings. The first was that the provision supported the ability of police to enforce these GDL restrictions, because the rate of citations among novice drivers went up in New Jersey right after the provision. The second was that in the first year after the law was implemented, the rate of police-reported crashes in New Jersey went down. The third was that we found that the provision prevented an estimate of over 1,600 police-reported crashes—so we see this as initial insight into the possible safety effects of the law. But we acknowledge that it’s really only part of the picture, we still need to look at longer-term effects of the law in terms of enforcement, crashes, and compliance.

Who did you most want this research to reach, and what influence did you hope to have?

There were three main groups we really wanted to target. The first, of course, was policy-makers. The implementation of the decal in the state was quite controversial. There were several repeal attempts by lawmakers in New Jersey, and the case made its way up to the New Jersey Supreme Court, so we knew our research was important from the perspective of helping to shape the future of the provision in New Jersey. 

The second was international and national jurisdictions that were considering the decal provisions. Six states had introduced some sort of GDL decal legislation, and we’d heard at the start of the study that these states may have been waiting for outcomes in New Jersey before making any decisions (on how) they should progress with their legislation. We also knew of international jurisdictions that have had this for decades but didn’t have evidence of whether they were making progress in terms of reducing teen crashes.

And then the third group is parents and teens. In New Jersey, the decal provision was implemented without an educational component. We thought our research could be extremely important in helping to inform the decisions of New Jersey parents and teens.

What are a couple examples of uptake and impact you are particularly proud of thus far?

Since the study’s come out, we’ve had contact with public health department staff in other states that were starting to consider whether this was something they want to advocate for, and I’ve had really thoughtful conversations about the experience in New Jersey. There’s a fascinating story in the implementation of this provision in New Jersey, and I think other health departments and departments of transportation are starting to consider this as an avenue to further enhance their GDL programs.

There are also the parent and teen advocacy groups in New Jersey. We really wanted to arm the advocacy groups and the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety with this knowledge, so they can pass the information to parents and teens. Parents’ and teens’ perspectives may be different than it was before once they understand the safety benefits of the law. 

We’ve also had contact with international colleagues who were excited that someone was finally able to evaluate a GDL decal provision. This I think really strengthens the evidence for their existing provisions and future implementations.

Are there other unexpected audiences who have taken interest, and/or new audiences you did not initially think about who you feel would benefit from this research?

The Center for Injury Research and Prevention was really built on this mantra of “research to action,” which focuses on incorporating our end-users into the research process early on, and then translating our scientific findings for all the stakeholder groups in a way that gets at what matters to them. For this project, we spent many hours identifying who these stakeholders are, and what kinds of information they need. So I wouldn’t say there have been any really unexpected audiences—just because we thought so hard about all of the different audiences upfront. We’ve been communicating with them from day one in terms of what matters to them and what questions they need answered—and then feeding the information to them so that they can use it to inform their work with parents and teens.

Are there any lessons from this project that will inform your future research, or that you’d share with other researchers who want to maximize the impact and reach of their work?

The first is the importance of collaboration. This project was only possible because the policy-makers and staff in New Jersey also viewed it as extremely important to evaluate the provision, and were willing to provide us with the data that was necessary to conduct this research, and on an extremely short time-line. I think all groups involved understood that this question really needed to be answered—and given that it was a controversial issue, we needed the information sooner rather than later. 

The second, I would say, is to invest in dissemination beyond scientific journals, and particularly in translating findings for a non-scientific audience. Messages like this cannot sit in a scientific journal for somebody to read a year from now. It’s important to dedicate time to thinking early on about who your audiences are and getting your messages into the hands of those who are in the best position to act on them.


No. 1 Year in Research Winner for 2012

Graduated Driver Licensing Decal Law

Teen drivers may not like it, but New Jersey's pioneering graduated driving license decal law is estimated to have prevented more than 1,600 crashes.

Read the research

Read About the Grant

Public Health Law Research: Making the Case for Laws That Improve Health, was designed to build the evidence for public health law and policy, translate research findings into practical tools to increase the support for and use of law by policy-makers and public health practitioners, and to translate findings to other fields and venues to improve and protect health.

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