From: North Jersey
"What did I do, now?"
That was the usual reaction from more than 100 young drivers last week as police in Montclair, Caldwell and three other Essex County towns stopped them for doing what teens usually tell adults they're doing - absolutely nothing.
But to commemorate National Teen Driver Safety Week, police weren't issuing tickets. They were giving each teen a red envelope with a $5 certificate to a fast-food restaurant plus a note of commendation addressed to their parents.
"We wanted to thank you for displaying the red decal," said Arnold Anderson, an ex-county cop, who arranged the stops.
Those tiny red decals stirred passions in households across New Jersey in 2010 when the state became the first in the nation to require first-year drivers to stick the removable patches on each license plate under the Graduated Driver License program.
See the research behind the decals in the article "New Jersey's Teen Driver Decals Show Sustained Link with Fewer Crashes"
The decal requirement is known as Kyleigh's Law for Kyleigh D'Alessio, a 16-year-old Morris County girl killed in a 2006 crash as a passenger in car driven by another teenager. That tragedy helped develop support for the decal, but tens of thousands of teens and parents cried foul, arguing that the little red identifier would target young people for violence and police abuse.
Hardly any of the objectors denied the fact that road crashes were killing more teens than anything else or that teens represented only 6 percent of the state's population, yet they contributed to 14 percent of its road deaths. They simply didn't like the solution advanced by a panel of lawmakers, cops, traffic safety advocates, parents, teachers and others who had researched similar identifiers used successfully in Canada, Japan, Australia and Britain.
Supporters said the teen markers offered the only way police could easily identify novices who violate GDL safety restrictions that bar driving after 11 p.m. - since teen crashes tend to rise at night - or loading cars with more than one teen passenger unless an experienced driver is present.
Despite the controversy, Kyleigh's Law and several other GDL improvements were passed in 2009.
Since then, support for teen-driving safety seems to have slowly grown. For example, besides the "thank-you" gift certificates, the driver-training group Drive Safer gave a free, six-hour course Saturday at MetLife Stadium designed to offer practical techniques for novices to handle road conditions not included in six-hour, state-mandated driving courses.
As the controversy over the Kyleigh's Law decal waned, some enlightening facts emerged.
Like other jurisdictions with similar identifiers, New Jersey has not documented any reports of teen violence or police harassment relating to decals. And more importantly, deaths involving drivers age 20 or younger fell from 80 in 2009 to 46 in 2013, according to a state Highway Traffic Safety Division analysis. That's a 42.5 percent decline. By comparison, traffic deaths involving drivers in all other age groups fell about 1.6 percent - from 504, to 496, over that period.
Moreover, a recent study by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia showed 1,600 fewer New Jersey 17-year-olds crashed in the first year of the decals' use compared with the prior year - a figure roughly equivalent of the entire enrollment of a school the size of Paramus Catholic High.
"There's plenty of science now to show that New Jersey's approach to keeping young drivers safe is working," said Violet Marrero, special projects manager for the Highway Traffic Safety Division. "What we're doing now is getting more parents involved."
That's not an easy job. But there was a reason Anderson's $5 gift certificate also contained a thank-you note to parents. Call it an olive branch. Many parents remain so opposed to restrictions like the decals, said the ex-cop, that they still advise their children to use them only when they visit a Motor Vehicle Commission office to take driving tests for licensing.
"Unlike them, I've seen too many fatal crashes," he said. "Too many parents think it's safe to buy their inexperienced 17-year-olds a muscle car, yet they think it's unsafe to give police a tool like a red decal to make sure their kids obey a law designed to keep them safe."
To combat this resistance, advocates have been calling on high schools to adopt rules requiring parents to learn about the practical safety benefits behind GDL's requirements - mainly the curfew, passenger restrictions, the decal and the outright ban on all distracting cellphone use, including the hands-free variety. In some cases, student parking passes are contingent on parental participation. In others, students cannot take driver education courses unless a parent or guardian attends the first class. Still others offer incentives, like a chance in a raffle to win a free, six-hour driving course.
This approach has worked especially well in schools that have seen teen traffic deaths, including Jackson Township Memorial High School (12 students killed in eight years), Freehold Township Regional (three deaths in one day in 2008) and Mainland Regional in Atlantic County (five deaths in one day in 2011).
When bills mandating this practice got no gubernatorial backing, schools embraced Share the Keys, a program providing facilitators from Kean University to train teachers, police and others in how to teach parents and teens the value of good driving practices.
"We explain the importance of the restrictions and how to properly coach young drivers as they learn to navigate the road," said Mike Tullio, a chief facilitator.
In 90 minutes, trainees learn practical road lessons, including the dangers of powerful, high-performance muscle cars as well as facts about risks for teens, who are statistically three times more likely to crash than experienced drivers. No preaching. No opinions. Just facts, said Tullio.