Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the little red decals that permit and probationary driver license holders in New Jersey must affix to their vehicle license plates are once again in the news. This time, a study examining the first-ever-Graduated Driver License (GDL) identifier in the U.S. was named the most influential research article of 2012 in an online poll.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, looked at the decal’s impact on enforcement of New Jersey’s GDL program and crashes involving probationary (first year) drivers. Linking the state’s licensing and motor vehicle crash databases from January 1, 2008 through May 31, 2011, the researchers compared monthly rates of GDL-related citations and crashes for probationary drivers in the two years before the decal took effect and in the year after.
This is the first scientific look at the effect of the use of decals on crash rates, even though they’ve been used in other countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, England, Japan) for many years. The findings are significant. During the first year of the decal requirement in New Jersey (referred to as Kyleigh’s Law), GDL-related citations issued to probationary drivers increased 14 percent. The rate of police-reported crashes among the same group declined 9 percent. The study also found that multiple-vehicle crashes decreased by 8 percent and crashes where a teen was transporting his peers dropped 9 percent. But perhaps most important is the CHOP finding that an estimated 1,624 crashes involving probationary drivers were prevented.
That’s “equivalent to the number of students attending a large high school,” says Allison Curry, PhD, MPH, lead author and director of epidemiology at CIRP at CHOP. “New Jersey youth and other road users are safer as a result of the decals.”
New Jersey has one of the most comprehensive GDL programs in the country and one of the lowest teen driver crash fatality rates. Even so, the state was able to achieve additional reductions in crashes with a decal provision as part of its GDL. Researchers at CHOP suggest that states with higher teen crash rates than New Jersey might realize even greater gains from including decal provisions as part of their GDL programs because they have more room for improvement.
CHOP’s recommendation may prompt action by other states. A new report released on February 26 by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that teen driver fatalities in the U.S. increased during the first half of 2012. New Jersey, however, was one of 17 states where teen fatalities decreased. The report’s author Dr. Allan Williams attributes much of the increase to the fact that the benefit of state GDL laws may be leveling off, since many of these laws have been in place for some time.
Would a decal make a difference? Clearly its having a positive impact on enforcement of the GDL restrictions in New Jersey. When police have a tool to help them enforce the proven provisions of graduate driver licensing, teens are more likely to comply lessening their crash-risk.