Young drivers in New Jersey will be subject to some of the strictest laws in the nation under two bills that Gov. Corzine signed yesterday.

New Jersey became the first state to adopt a measure requiring those younger than 21 without full-privilege licenses to display a decal on their vehicle identifying them as new drivers, according to state officials.

The intent is to make young drivers more easily identifiable to law enforcement.

Governments in other parts of the world, including Australia, British Columbia, and Northern Ireland, require novice drivers to display special plates. Delaware and Connecticut have considered a similar requirement. New Jersey's law will go into effect next spring.

"Kyleigh's Law" was named after 16-year-old Kyleigh D'Alessio of Morris County, who was killed in a car accident involving a teen driver who also died.

"Having a driver's license is an awesome responsibility for any teenager," Corzine said in a bill-signing ceremony at West Morris Central High School in Chester Township, where D'Alessio was a student.

"The legislation I am signing today initiates several preventative measures to help avoid further teen driving tragedies like Kyleigh's while ensuring that our young people are better prepared to safely take to the roadways," he said.

The second law, which will take effect at the same time, limits under-21 drivers with a learner's permit or probationary license to one passenger unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The law also prohibits them from driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. The current curfew is midnight to 5 a.m.

Under the law, provisional licenses would be renamed probationary licenses. The legislation also clarifies that new drivers of any age without a full-privilege license cannot use a wireless device - hands-free or not - while at the wheel. That has been the case since New Jersey's graduated driver-licensing laws took effect in 2001.

The new laws address four of 47 recommendations from the Teen Driver Study Commission, which Corzine convened to suggest ways to reduce accidents involving young drivers.

Nationwide, motor-vehicle crashes are the number-one cause of teen deaths, according to the commission. In New Jersey, teen drivers are involved in accidents every nine minutes, on average. One in six young drivers licensed in New Jersey is involved in a car crash.

"For me, it's a really great day," said Pam Fischer, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, who served as chair of the study commission. "We want to do everything we can to keep kids safe."

"What we've done today is a huge step forward," she said. "Kids don't like it and some parents are grumbling about it, but it's important stuff. We're trying to get kids through the most dangerous time in their life."

David Weinstein, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic who served on the commission, likewise praised the new laws.

"Data shows that crash risk increases with every passenger and decreases with appropriate curfews," Weinstein said. "Removing distractions from the vehicle and allowing the most inexperienced drivers to gain valuable driving experience gradually and safely saves lives."

Students leaving Haddonfield Memorial High School after music practice yesterday were incredulous when they heard about the new rules.

"The government is not our parents. They're treating us like babies," Jimmy Coyne, 18, said.

"I think it's absolutely, positively ridiculous because kids need the freedom of what existed before this," Jason Mitrione, 17, said. "It angers me and makes me want to write a letter."

"If we have a driver's license, we should be expected to drive safely and follow the rules of the road," Will Stiefel, 17, said. The extra rules are unnecessary, he said.

Banning hands-free cell phones for new drivers makes no sense, they said. "What's the difference between that and listening to the radio?" Stiefel asked.

Sgt. Stephen Jones, a state police spokesman, did not want to comment extensively on the regulations until details were released about the decals. But he said failure to display a decal - a $100 offense - would likely be treated as a secondary offense in conjunction with a more serious violation. It would not be the initial reason to pull a driver over, he said.

"We're not going to be in the business of trying to guess someone's age based on their appearance," Jones said.

He said officers who work in high schools would probably be more successful at identifying violators. They may be familiar with students' cars and could catch underage drivers who don't display the decals or who drive home too late.

The Motor Vehicle Commission is working out details of the decal, which could be a Velcro tag affixed to front and rear license plates, Fischer said. The tags could be removed when a fully licensed driver uses the vehicle.

Currently, 16-year-olds in New Jersey can receive special learners' permits for supervised driving if they complete a six-hour behind-the-wheel driving course. Seventeen-year-olds can get the permits without taking the course.

Drivers who are at least 17 and have had their permit for six months can take behind-the-wheel tests and get a provisional license. Drivers who have had a provisional license for at least 12 months are eligible to receive a basic license with no restrictions.

New Jersey has the highest minimum driving age, according to the study commission report.

In Pennsylvania, 16- and 17-year-olds with a learner's permit or junior license cannot drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. They are allowed to have as many passengers as there are seat belts.

Changes Starting Next Spring

These regulations go into effect next spring for drivers younger than 21 without full-privilege licenses.

Removable decals must be affixed to the vehicle to identify the driver as a novice. Failure to comply carries a $100 fine.

Driving is banned between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Only one passenger is permitted unless the driver is accompanied by a parent or guardian. Exceptions will be made for the driver's children.

The use of cell phones and other communications devices, including hands-free ones, is forbidden. This law, which is already on the books, applies to drivers of all ages with learner's permits or provisional licenses.

SOURCE: N.J. Senate Transportation Committee

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