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.
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. Trautmann's real impetus for taking on the law, however, was a visceral aversion to what he said it represents: a capricious wielding of state power that could lead to real harm. Using his son and nephew as plaintiffs—both were 17 at the time—he started drafting a brief in early 2009. "The day after it passed, we filed," he says. "Just to say, 'Screw you, government.'?" The suit was dismissed last March and again on appeal in October 2010 and in February 2011.
Assemblyman Schroeder, by contrast, does not think the legislature fundamentally overreached with the decal requirement, or that regulations governing teenage driving are overly burdensome. Quite the opposite. When he introduced a supplemental bill in September, it didn't just repeal the decal requirement; it actually went further than Kyleigh's Law by making parents financially culpable for their children's noncompliance with GDL restrictions. "No driver shall receive a probationary license," the bill reads, unless a parent or guardian "pledges, via handwritten signature, to accept responsibility for enforcing these laws and conditions as they pertain to the applicant." In other words, if a probationary driver breaks the 11 p.m. curfew, his or her parents face an additional fine of their own—even if the driver in question is 20. Schroeder tells me this provision is meant to "shift the responsibility" for educating new drivers about GDL restrictions to parents and away from the state. His proposal is still awaiting a hearing in the transportation committee.
Schroeder couldn't produce any documented reports of the decals leading to harassment, though he did offer some anecdotes. For example, he tells me, last summer a teenage girl was followed off the Garden State Parkway, though no direct connection between the decals and the incident was established. Throughout our conversation, Schroeder suggested that his office has received a slew of substantiated complaints from constituents, but a staffer later tells me their only information came from the same press reports everyone else has been reading. "We haven't spoken to anybody that's actually made a complaint," the aide says.
Violet Marrero, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and a supporter of Kyleigh's Law, calls the oft-repeated predator objection a "false argument," noting that no police reports of such incidents have been filed. Nevertheless, many parents are so unnerved that they've discovered a newfound penchant for civil disobedience. Linda Gianni, a mother of two young drivers who spoke at one of Assemblyman Schroeder's anti–Kyleigh's Law press conferences last June, says she drives with the decals on her car just to confuse people who might be on the lookout for them. She adds that she'd rather pay a $100 fine for noncompliance than instruct her daughters to put a "target" on their vehicles. "You're risking their lives," she tells me. At the press conference, Gianni claimed her daughter was trailed one morning while driving home from a sleepover. She traveled down a few county roads before managing to lose the alleged stalker. "I will never forget the fear and panic on her face," Gianni told reporters. But once again, no link between the decals and the incident was ever established. Gianni later tells me, "I won't deny that it could have been a coincidence."
For another tale of decal-related trouble, Schroeder puts me in touch with Woodcliff Lakes Police Chief Anthony Jannicelli, who wrote the assemblyman to report an incident he experienced firsthand. Jannicelli, whose teenage son occasionally uses his Chevy Tahoe, said the decals usually stay on the car regardless of who is driving. One day, the chief was on his way to work, and somebody in front of him was speeding like a maniac. Jannicelli signaled his disapproval with a stern beep, and at the next traffic light, the speeder leapt out of his car in the middle of the road and began to approach the chief's vehicle. Based on the decals, Jannicelli reckoned, the guy must have assumed he was about to chew out a lowly teenager; the Tahoe's windshield is high and usually obscured by glare, so from street level it's hard to tell who is behind the wheel. Needless to say, Mr. Road Rage quickly backed off after discovering that he was about to confront a uniformed police officer, but the episode left Jannicelli convinced that the decals are a safety hazard. "If it was my son in the car and not me," he says, "my feeling is this guy probably would have come back and had a fist fight."
It's the standard formula for a Kyleigh's Law harassment story: Take an ordinary traffic encounter and attribute it, without any real evidence, to the presence of the decals. A few weeks later, Jannicelli was flipping through TV channels and came across Assemblyman Schroeder describing the incident on a local news show.
Beyond creating Facebook groups, which they have done aplenty, the most relevant people here—actual teenagers—have staged rallies at legislators' offices, written op-ed pieces, and articulated a coherent critique of Kyleigh's Law that does not necessarily depend on the prospect of sexual predation. But their legitimate grievances tend to be undermined by paranoid adults who give credence to the overwrought notion that psychopaths could be lurking behind any anonymous windshield. In fact, if a teenager is likely to be followed by anyone, it's a police officer, not some crazed miscreant—and legislators don't seem to have a problem with that.
Chief Jannicelli says he hasn't been especially diligent in writing tickets for noncompliance with the decal provision, but it does come in handy on occasion. "I've issued one only because the kid was…lazy, I guess is the word," he reports. "I couldn't write him a 'lazy' ticket." The kid had left his car parked in a fire zone for a few minutes while he went inside a bagel store—not a terribly egregious violation. As a compromise, Jannicelli wrote the kid up for the lesser offense of failing to display the decals. It's a mundane story, but illustrates what Kyleigh's Law actually does in practice: It gives officers greater discretion in monitoring teenage drivers however they see fit. There are no firm data on the rate of noncompliance, but Jannicelli believes it's quite high. So a citation for lacking proper decals is now available to officers as a "warning" if, say, they don't like a teenager's attitude. But you won't often hear members of the Assembly comment on the wisdom of enhancing police discretion in this way. The critics mostly focus on the specter of lurking perverts.
The Alarmist Impulse
Last November, Michael Patrick Carroll, one of the 13 assemblymen who have reversed their position on Kyleigh's Law, cast the sole vote against an anti-bullying bill introduced in response to the death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after a roommate surreptitiously streamed video of his intimate encounter with another man to online viewers. "Kyleigh would not have been saved by the decals," Carroll tells me, "and Tyler would not have been saved by an anti-bullying bill."
His is a lonely voice in New Jersey against legislation named after dead teenagers. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) subsequently proposed the federal Tyler Clementi Anti-Harassment Education Act, which would require all universities receiving federal aid to strengthen their anti-harassment policies. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends academic freedom, says the bill would be "a disaster for open debate and discourse on campus," arguing that its vague and subjective definition of harassment threatens to abridge students' First Amendment rights.
As legislators gradually express regret for almost unanimously assenting to an ill-considered bill, the decal provision of Kyleigh's Law may well be repealed. But the underlying impulse that allowed it to pass so briskly through the legislature with negligible dissent is still firmly entrenched, as is the idea that government must express its sympathy with victims of tragedy by cobbling together commemorative legislation. There was an opportunity here to open a dialog on the state's proper role in regulating teenage behavior; instead, the primary argument against Kyleigh's Law was based on the same sort of alarmism that led to its passage. That may be enough to kill one bad bill, but it does nothing to address the culpable mind-set. Assemblyman Schroeder is currently cosponsoring legislation that would require life imprisonment for anyone convicted of murdering a child. It's called Judy and Nikki's Law.
Michael Tracey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer based in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.