Most college students are familiar with New Jersey’s controversial Kyleigh’s Law, which requires all drivers under the age of 21 to display red, reflective decals on their front and back license plates. The law is named after Kyleigh D’Alessio, a 16 year-old high school student killed in a car accident in December 2006. Both Kyleigh and the driver of the vehicle were killed. Kyleigh’s mother, Donna Weeks, is the commanding force behind the creation and institution of Kyleigh’s Law; she believes that imposing greater restrictions on teenage drivers will help to prevent other parents from losing their children as she did hers.
However, not all parents agree. While she believes her daughters to be “smart, capable girls,” Kim Lafferty* of Cherry Hill, New Jersey fears that the easy identification of them as teenage drivers puts them in unnecessary danger.
“I know that Kyleigh’s Law is meant to minimize distractions for teenage drivers, but I believe that serves only as another distraction for my daughters. I’m concerned that they are going to be more worried about whether they’re being followed by a predator than whether they’re obeying by the rules of the road. It’s hard to focus on what’s in front of your car if you’re always looking in the rearview mirror,” feels Lafferty.
The red decal has been dubbed a “scarlet letter” by many concerned parents and community members. They feel as though it discriminates against teenage drivers and provides further opportunities for their victimization.
Dr. Laura Bernstein, a history professor and the director of the Women’s Studies program at Rutgers-Camden, takes care to view the situation in a very practical light.
Bernstein says, “On the one hand, I’m all too aware that new drivers’ lack of road experience tends to make them more dangerous behind the wheel. On the other hand, not all new drivers are under 21, and there are many other risk factors that worry me more: driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, driving while texting or talking on the phone, road rage, and the kind of aggressive driving I see every day on I-95 that has people weaving in and out of lanes, tailgating, etc.”
The law does seem to address some of Bernstein’s concerns; according to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website, Kyleigh’s Law makes it easier for police to monitor cell phone usage by teenagers, limits the number of passengers to one, and may lower the frequency of drunk driving incidents by requiring teens to be off the roads by 11pm. The red decal essentially gives police probable cause to pull over any marked vehicle driving after curfew or whose driver is operating a cell phone. However, many teens take issue with these aspects of the law in particular.
Arielle L’Esperance, a senior at Rutgers Camden, says this: “Cops should be pulling over every bad driver and then ascertaining his or her age. Requiring underage drivers to have stickers in order to distinguish them is superfluous and counterproductive because bad drivers should get pulled over regardless of their age.”
Senior Rutgers Camden student Jennifer Ferentz echoes L’Esperance’s sentiments: “There is no need for drivers under the age of 21 to have to put a sticker on there so that cops know that they are underage drivers. The driving laws are simple: if someone is driving suspiciously or dangerously they should be pulled over whether or not they are 21.”
Furthermore, a retired Pennsauken Police Department Officer (who asked to remain anonymous in this article), introduces what appears to be yet another potentially complicating factor in effectively enforcing the law.
He does acknowledge the positive aspects from a law enforcement perspective, saying, “It’s great because cops can easily identify people in violation of previous laws — like driving past a certain time or having too many people in your car with a provisional license.” However, he also points out that “it presents problems when the tags are accidentally left on by other drivers of the automobile that the teen is using. Pennsauken Township had a similar program for a short time. I believe it was called ‘C.A.T.’. Senior citizens had stickers on their cars in a similar way. It became a problem when the senior citizens shared a car with children or grandchildren. Situations would arise where these individuals would be confused as car thieves when they simply shared a car with an older individual.”
The decals created for Kyleigh’s Law are affixed to the license plate with velcro and are meant to be removed when a regular driver uses the car. However, if the either driver forgets to remove the decal, there is the potential for police efforts to be wasted on drivers who, in fact, are not subject to the restrictions that the decals imply.
While it is clear that much of the law’s opposition is rooted in these logistical concerns, many people fear that the law makes teenage drivers, especially young girls, more susceptible to predation and sexual assaults. According to the statistics featured on the website for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest Nation Network (RAINN), college age women are 4 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, and many fear that Kyleigh’s law will only serve to heighten this statistic. 8 out of 10 polled 19-year old college students oppose Kyleigh’s Law on the basis of increased sexual predation.
Alyssa Leonetti, a junior at Rutgers Camden, sums up what appears to be the prevailing opinion of most young women: “I understand that the sticker was created so that cops could easily pull over the new drivers. But there are other people out there who would like to identify young people driving alone, such as sex offenders. I don’t think it is the best idea to have on the cars of new, young drivers, as it just adds another thing for them to worry about.”
Dr. Bernstein too notes that “given the way young people, particularly young women, may feel more vulnerable than ever because of decals that single them out, it seems to me that Kyleigh’s law, albeit well meant, is not the best way to go about making us safer.”
Despite the efforts of people like Republican Senator Tom Goodwin to get the law repealed altogether, the Senate passed a bill to have the law undergo a 6 month review by the Attorney General. In the meantime, decals are $4 a pair and can be picked up at any local DMV.