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In August, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state law mandating special red stickers on the license plates of the state's teenage drivers. 

The law in question, Kyleigh's Law, is intended to help police enforce the state's graduated licensing laws, which prohibit teenaged drivers from having passengers in the car, driving at night or using a cellphone while driving. 

Under the law, novice drivers must purchase a pair of red decals for $4 and affix them to their license plates. The theory goes that police will now have an easier time identifying a driver who shouldn't have passengers in the car or drive late at night, making enforcement of the rules easier (and the streets presumably safer).

The law had been under fire from critics who argued that the stickers could make teens the targets of sexual predators, though only one such incident has been reported thus far. And a study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the law is unpopular and hasn't increased teens' compliance with the restrictions.

"The results were mixed," says IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. "We found that the law did help police enforce graduated license restrictions, but it didn't appear to improve compliance with the law." 

In other words, the stickers are helping New Jersey police spot more teenage scofflaws and write more tickets for violations, but New Jersey teens don't seem to be changing their habits, at least not yet. 

Is an 'L plate' in your future?

Pam Fischer, the former director of highway safety in New Jersey and one of the law's biggest proponents, says the rules need time to take hold.

"It's a new law, and compliance takes time," she says. "One year's worth of data does not tell us definitively that it's not the answer."

As evidence that such a law can be successful, she points to other countries:

  • In Australia, whose graduated licensing laws served as a template for New Jersey's, teens graduate from an "L plate" to a sequence of color-coded "P plates" over the course of a probationary period.
  • In British Columbia, a "learner's license" requires a sign in the rear window for drivers in the earliest phase of training.
  • In Japan, new drivers and those over 75 have special stickers that must be displayed on the car.

One study found that other countries' licensing programs now have "overwhelming support," suggesting that the American public could eventually come around.

"We're well behind many other modernized countries when it comes to licensing and testing, and we're playing catch-up," says Fischer.

While the decals have passed court muster, the political atmosphere seems less forgiving. In the IIHS study, a survey of parents found a whopping 84% disapproved of the law.

Fischer acknowledges that there hasn't been much movement in other states to consider similar measures.

How about a 'W,' then?

New Jersey is not the only state that can force you to buy a special license plate.

Two states, Ohio and Minnesota, have laws in place requiring the use of special plates for convicted drunken drivers. In Ohio, two DUI convictions in six years -- or a first offense of 0.17% blood-alcohol content or higher -- can lead a judge to stick you with a special yellow plate. A representative from the state's department of public safety says that more than 4,600 such plates are issued in the state.

Meanwhile, Minnesota drivers with a similar pattern of drunken-driving convictions have their license plates impounded, but drivers or their families can get back so-called "whiskey plates" (starting with the letter W) with a valid driver's license.

Other states have considered such "whiskey plates" laws, but with little progress. In New York state, for instance, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz has repeatedly introduced a bill that would require that motorists with drunken-driving convictions get special plates, but the bill has languished in committee.

And such bills aren't getting any help from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is more focused on laws requiring ignition interlock systems that prevent inebriated people from operating vehicles.

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"In terms of DUI plates, that's not something that MADD advocates for, and we have not seen any studies that say they're effective," says J.T. Griffin, the group's senior vice president of public policy. "MADD's not there to put a scarlet letter on an offender."

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