Dead Kids Make Bad Laws: New Jersey May Soon Repeal One of the Most Onerous Driving Restrictions in the Country. That Doesn't Mean Legislators Have Learned Their Lesson
Tracey, Michael, Reason
IN NEW JERSEY, "probationary" drivers younger than 21 must display red, reflective decals on the front and rear license plates of any vehicle they operate. Are these motorists on probation for driving drunk, recklessly, or otherwise in contravention of the law? No: They're on probation simply for being under 21.
The Garden State's Graduated Driver's License (GDL) program, established in 2001, affects all new drivers below drinking age in their first full year behind the wheel. Probationary license holders have a midnight driving curfew, are prohibited from driving with more than one nonrelated passenger, and are issued specially marked licenses that advertise their ineligibility to purchase alcohol.
But these restrictions, already among the most stringent in the country, did not go far enough for state legislators. So in April 2009 they approved Kyleigh's Law--the first bill of its kind in the United States--by sweeping bipartisan majorities, including a unanimous vote of 78 to 0 in the New Jersey Assembly. The law was named for 16-year-old Kyleigh D'Alessio, who was killed in a 2006 car accident that seems to have been the result of a friend's distracted driving. In her name, New Jersey teenagers now must broadcast their ages while on the road. They are also forbidden to use wireless headsets, which are legal for everyone else, and their driving curfew has been moved up to 11 p.m.
D'Alessio's mother, Donna Weeks, was heavily involved in lobbying for the legislation. Weeks attended hearings in the statehouse, met with then-Gov. Jon Corzine, and cast a symbolic vote for the bill on behalf of its chief sponsor, Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex). Asked whether Weeks' presence might have encouraged otherwise skeptical lawmakers to withhold their dissent, for fear of offending Kyleigh's memory, Barnes replies :"I think it's a fair comment. Sometimes a legislator just wants to help."
Then something unusual happened: New Jersey residents began fighting back against," the underage driving sticker. Kyleigh's Law has proven unpopular not just with young drivers but with many of their parents. But the adults' opposition does not stem from an objection to intrusive for-the-children legislative hysteria. It reflects a semi-hysterical for-the-children fear of their own: that teen drivers, once identified as such, would become targets of predators.
A counternarrative developed almost immediately after the restrictions were passed. Some young people did raise well-founded questions about the law, such as whether the highest-risk drivers were likely to forego using the decals, undermining the policy's public safety goals. But hypothetical horror stories were more common. Go to Facebook and you'll find plenty of groups with names like "Kyleigh's Law lets creepers know I'm young and alone."
Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (R-Bergen), who wasn't in the state legislature when Kyleigh's Law was passed, is now among its most visible critics. "It only takes one incident," he says, "and that incident could turn into a tragedy." Schroeder introduced a bill to repeal the decal provision less than two weeks after it came into effect in May 2010, and at least 13 assemblymen who initially voted for that provision have become co-sponsors. "At the time, both sides thought it was a pretty good idea," says Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-Bergen), one of the 13. "And after a while, I was getting calls to my office from parents who were absolutely irate. They were worried about pedophiles going after their children."
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris), who says he was originally wary of Kyleigh's Law but eventually supported it out of deference to a trusted colleague, calls it one of the few votes in his career that he came to regret. "I should have listened to my kids," Carroll admitted. "Sometimes, we legislate in a hustle and repent at leisure."
The Decal Rebellion
Gregg Trautmann, a Morris County attorney, has challenged Kyleigh's Law in New Jersey Superior Court as a violation of the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which forbids any Department of Motor Vehicles from disclosing the personal information of license holders. …