Why not try it? Why not see whether requiring a “New Driver” placard for motorists younger than 18 actually reduces accidents?
Those are the questions being asked by state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, who introduced House Bill 1159 to help other drivers identify those who are less experienced on the road. Pike’s bill passed the House by a 53-44 vote and now goes to the Senate. In supporting the measure, the representative came up with an effective analogy: “When I see a student driver in one of those vehicles that has a big placard that says ‘Student Driver,’ if you’re like me, you give those students a wide berth,” she said. Many drivers can attest to the truism of that statement.
Oh, it’s nothing personal against student drivers or, in this case, newly licensed drivers. It’s just that most of us can remember how inexperienced we were and how unsure we felt behind the wheel at that age. And it’s just that mountains of statistical evidence indicate that teen drivers are more prone to accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population. However, they account for 30 percent ($19 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males and 28 percent ($7 billion) of the total cost of motor vehicle injuries among females.” The percentages are even more disparate for the youngest among that age group.
So, why not require removable placards on cars driven by the most inexperienced drivers? Why not alert other motorists when such a driver is nearby? To answer those questions, the bill would create a pilot program in Clark County — which might be its biggest selling point. Rather than establishing a statewide law, it makes sense to begin the program on a small scale and then assess its effectiveness. If accidents decline among young drivers, then the program would be worth considering at the state level; if accidents don’t decline, then the program can be scuttled and no harm has been done.
Critics, meanwhile, have raised some counter-arguments. For example, how will the program be enforced? Will drivers be pulled over simply for looking young and not having a placard? That same argument could be used regarding driver’s licenses; there’s no way to tell if a driver has a license until they get into an accident or are pulled over for some other reason, and yet we manage to make the system work. For another example, critics point to the placards as a scarlet letter that could be embarrassing to teens. But if it proves to save lives, that concern is nonsensical. Are we really more worried about teens being embarrassed than we are about working to prevent serious accidents? As Pike said, “We want our children to outlive us.”
Now, requiring a “New Driver” placard on a car is not the most pressing issue facing lawmakers. Nor is it the most pressing issue regarding safety on the roads. Six states, for instance, still have not outlawed texting while driving, clinging to the “personal freedom” and “government intrusion” mantras. We’re all in favor of personal freedom and limited government intrusion, but we’re also in favor of common sense, and we’re thankful Washingtonians have banned texting while driving.
Not all that long ago, there were no laws governing the use of seat belts; now those laws save lives. Even more recently, there were loose regulations regarding drinking and driving — and then we came to our senses. Can requiring “New Driver” placards have a similar impact? We don’t know. But it can’t hurt to find out.