Cars travel on the crowded New Jersey turnpike. Reuters/Mike Segar

In the U.S., only New Jersey mandates this practice.

Though the green and yellow sticker on the front and rear bumpers of some cars in Japan is pleasing to the eye, it’s not for decoration. Japanese law requires beginning drivers to affix the decals for a year after obtaining a license. Countries such as Australia, India, and Ireland similarly mandate that newbie drivers’ vehicles sport an identifying symbol, such as a sticker with the letter L (for learner) in the middle. The idea is to promote safety by encouraging fellow motorists to give the marked cars a little more space.

Japan’s wakaba (“young leaf”) sticker signifies a new driver.

In the U.S., only New Jersey requires such a mark. Kyleigh’s Law, named after a 16-year-old who was killed in a crash in 2006, obliges anyone under 21 who is in the first year of a driver’s license in the state to display a small, square red sticker on their front and back plates. Those who do not may be fined $100.

By making young drivers’ cars recognizable to others, including police, the thinking behind such laws is that decals not only warn motorists, but also compel youth to follow rules associated with their beginners’ licenses. In New Jersey, these include a ban on driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and riding with only one other passenger unless a parent or guardian is present.

The red decals can be removed when a young driver is not behind the wheel. (New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission)

When Kyleigh’s Law took effect in 2010, it caused an uproar. Teenagers didn’t want to display the decals, deeming them uncool, and many parents were convinced that the stickers would either expose their children to police profiling or make them targets for predators. Lawyer Gregg Trautmann, who failed to rescind the law in a New Jersey Supreme Court case, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I think girls become targeted by rapists and creeps.”

But in the intervening years, there has been no real evidence of incidents of harassment or targeting. What’s more, a study by a group of researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggests that the decals are helping. The study, published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that the stickers reduced crashes by 9.5 percent during their first two years of use. This represents nearly 3,200 fewer accidents.

The study’s weakness is that the percentage of young drivers who did not comply with the decal law is unknown. “There is definitely more we need to learn,” Allison Curry, the head researcher, said in a statement when the study was released. “The end result, however, is that many fewer teens crashed.”

Whatever theoretical risks U.S. states may be weighing when it comes to adopting similar laws, it’s clear they also need to consider the potential benefit of saving a lot of lives. As Curry told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We think other states should at least consider adding decals.”

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