Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kyleigh's Law

Beginning in May, drivers in New Jersey who are younger than 21 and have a provisional license must attach a red sticker on their license plates to identify them as such. The intent of the law (dubbed Kyleigh’s Law) is to help the police identify drivers with the provisional license who may be driving with too many passengers (more than one, unless a parent is present) or who may be driving past the curfew (11pm to 5am). A peripheral intent is to make such drivers think twice about their behavior on the road, knowing they’ll stand out more.

Now, I could talk about the stickers possibly drawing unnecessary attention to young drivers (or any drivers) from police. I go on about how it’s stressful enough being followed by a cop without having a special decal attached to one’s license plate. I could go on about how families owning multiple vehicles might occasionally frustrate the law’s intent when people with full licenses get behind the wheel of cars with the stickers. Or, I could point out the many instances where provisional drivers driving late at night or with more than one passenger might actually be completely reasonable and not warrant a ticket. But I won’t, because these are the obvious objections, and there's more to this story.

Will the law be effective in preventing incidents like the story of Kyleigh D’Alessio? Sure, in theory. But the cost won’t only be measured in more ticketing, fines, and decal sales (which won’t break your bank at $4 a pop, but I’ll bet the markup is hefty), but in your freedom. Whatever the intent of the law, it’s really not much more than a way to control people and make money doing it, all under the false pretense of protecting people. What legislator can resist posturing to some law-demanding voting bloc while pretending to save lives? If the state can manage to make a buck while doing it, so much the better. It’s for your own good (particularly the $100 fine for removing the decal). It drives me crazy to think of someone saying, "What's the big deal with a little sticker?" The big deal is that it's a needless regulation whose approval paves the way for more needless regulations. Even if this law doesn't affect you personally, it still legitimizes the role of the state in having this type of power, and so this power can be exercised over you- unless there's some clear objective limitation on the government's authority to regulate driving of which I’m not aware.

However, there is more still.

Before long, the adolescent outrage over Kyleigh’s law will pass and it will simply be accepted as something that always was- as routine as anything else that comes with getting one’s license. In a few decades, the idea of provisional drivers (or whatever it’s called then, at whatever age range it’s changed to) driving without an identifying sticker will horrify people, and many would battle any attempts to repeal it. Why? Because, they would say, chaos would ensue; teenagers just aren’t responsible enough to drive on their own; they always had to drive with a decal; the police need a way to keep an eye on them.

But the real reason people would say that is because they couldn’t remember a time without it. They will have no memory of the fact that there was a time when provisional drivers didn’t need to have a decal. They won’t remember that just a few decades ago, provisional licenses didn’t even exist. They won’t remember that the driving age was once just...17. And they won’t understand that in spite of all this, it was no big deal. The sky wasn’t falling, there was no state of emergency, and getting a license wasn’t a Byzantine ordeal. Life went on despite that much less of the government’s authoritative presence. Imagine that.

It’s important to note that this condition is in no way exclusive to the Motor Vehicles Commission. While Kyleigh’s Law isn’t the end of the world (I can think of other recent legislation that’s sure to have a heavier impact), it’s a good example of the relatively quiet way government can grow and come to be accepted (if not demanded) as the norm. Since recklessness is the exception and not the rule, we should always favor liberty and responsibility over being forced to accept government "protection" in all matters big and small. Keep this in mind even though a particular law may seem benign because once freedom is lost, it is very difficult to get back.