Car-tag decals are saving young drivers' lives

A red sticker is required on the license plates of cars driven by provisional drivers under 21. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

For those who think government serves little purpose, look at how authorities marshaled forces to save lives as mega-storm Sandy washed over the region. There are smaller public efforts as well that show how smart government intervention can protect residents.

For example, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia concludes that more than 1,600 young drivers likely were prevented from having traffic accidents because New Jersey requires them to place a red decal on their license plates.

Researchers compared monthly accident rates for roughly two years before the decal law became effective in May 2010 and about a year afterward. They found that overall, accidents involving young drivers declined by 9 percent and crashes after midnight fell by 13 percent.

The red decals alert police that a car is being operated by a teen motorist who must adhere to certain driving restrictions. Until age 17, they are not permitted to have more than one passenger in their cars unless accompanied by an adult. Young drivers also are not allowed to drive after 11 p.m.

As a result of the decal law, police have written 14 percent more tickets to young drivers. That may be annoying to teen motorists, but it has had a chilling effect on reckless behavior.

The law was challenged by foes who said it threatened the privacy of young drivers and would lead to police profiling them. But the state Supreme Court upheld the decal law in August.

Why treat young drivers differently? Neuroscientists say the frontal lobes of a person’s brain, where the mind evaluates the consequences of actions, are not fully developed until a person reaches his or her mid-20s.

New Jersey is the first state with a decal law, but much of the controversy should be put to rest by the CHOP study. When you consider car accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers, a red decal on a license plate isn’t too much to ask if it will save lives. Pennsylvania and Delaware should take notice.