Student Driver subterfuge: are they really new and inexperienced, or merely incompetent?

I’m going to go out on a limb with this mini-post.  Maybe I’m the only one who has noticed this, but in my opinion, we sure seem to see a lot more of this feature these days.

Student driver sticker.  Is it really a student?

I’m referring to the decals above the rear bumper on this car.  Which one am I talking about?  If it isn’t obvious already from the title of this article…

Student driver sticker

I can’t believe I’m the only one who has spotted the proliferation of these stickers in recent years.  What used to be a rare occurrence—the sighting of a student driver—now seems to be something one can expect to see with every car trip.

Is it just me?  Apparently I’m not the only one who caught this.  A curious reader of the Mercury News spotted this as well.  The answer from the newspaper’s transportation unit: the reason for all these student driver stickers is “concerned parents who want other drivers to cut their teens some slack when behind the wheel and be prepared for the unexpected.”  The respondent also notes such signs are “a good seller”—that seems to be true—and the statistics, as noted by the Mercury News, support the need for extra caution around student drivers.  The article lists all the reckless driving stats for which teen drivers are infamous: speeding, texting while driving, running red lights, not wearing seatbelts.

No doubt this is a problem; teens have always been notoriously careless behind the wheel and are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of serious accidents.  In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for teens.  But if the parents are buying these stickers to “cut their teens some slack”, couldn’t it just give the teens themselves more of an excuse to be irresponsible?  And why so many stickers these days?  Sure, the fact they’re easily available suggests numerous companies are responding to a surge in demand.  But why the surge in demand, since the percentage of teens pursuing drivers licenses has been steadily decreasing?  More and more of them are deferring both the license and drivers ed, yet the stickers are more common now than ever.  I remember in previous decades, when the decals would be huge—half the width of the car—easily visible on all four sides, and potentially even accompanied by a small blinking amber light.  As the student driver population diminishes, the warning stickers become more prevalent yet also more half-hearted.

Color me cynical, but I don’t just think the student driver signs are simply parents encouraging motorists to cut their kids some slack.  I think it’s motorists—many of them who have been driving for years—who are hoping it will allow law enforcement to cut them some slack, and possibly to overlook some careless maneuvering or even outright moving violations.  I’ve written in the past about creative measures for encouraging driver safety; why shouldn’t drivers be equally creative in evading these regs?  As long as the law enforcement doesn’t actually pull the drivers over to learn, upon checking their license, that the “student driver” sticker is at least insincere (if not outright fraudulent)…the driver is more likely to get away with minor infractions.  After all, it’s a student driver.  We should cut them all some slack.

Maybe I’m assuming the worst, but I also base my judgment on human nature.  Many years ago, the high-altitude capital of Mexico recognized the severity of smog from idling vehicles in traffic, so city leaders imposed restrictions to try to reduce the number of cars on the road.  They named the policy Hoy No Circula (literally “Today it does not circulate”), and it essentially uses a numeric code to restrict commuting days, combined with the associated vehicle’s results from an emissions test.  While the policy is more complicated than I am detailing, it largely equates to select digits on the license plates: e.g., numbers 5-6 can’t driveon Mondays; numbers 7-8 are no circula on Tuesdays; and so forth.  The policy loosely seemed to work at first, since the enforcement is strong.  But it has inconvenienced suburban commuters, many of whom need to take their cars to work each day and either distrust or simply dislike Mexico City’s generally widely available mass transit system.  Affluent motorists have found a way to circumvent the law by either renting a taxi or buying a second car for the off day.  An attempt to expand the policy to Saturdays hasn’t improved emissions levels at all.

The second law of unintended consequences related to traffic management involves the proliferation of HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes, throughout large metros like Mexico City or Washington DC (the suburbs of which form the source my photos featured here).  To mitigate traffic bottlenecking during rush hour, city transportation planners/engineers have built HOV lanes, favoring drivers who had at least two people in their car by according them a more exclusive “fast lane”.  Again, motorists who can’t find a commuting buddy to give them legal access to HOVs have found a creative solution: buy a life-size blow-up doll or mannequin to put in the passenger seat and hope most of law enforcement doesn’t notice.  Supposedly it hasn’t worked.  But that, of course, only accounts for the people who got caught.  How many dozens or hundreds have successfully deployed this ruse to skirt a law because their dummy in the passenger seat looked real?  If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it…

I am increasingly convinced that the student driver decals operate under the same principle, allowing individuals of any age to play fast and loose with certain laws and claim driver inexperience if they get pulled over for doing so.  I could of course be wrong, but a quick look at some of this driver’s other decals doesn’t inspire any confidence:

Is this particular Virginia driver showing how thankful he/she for having “gotten away” from New York state, or is this a more generic reference to a getaway car?  Truth be told, I’m not begrudging this person—or any person—his/her edgy and subversive bumper stickers.  Because if I were a big crank, I’d have turned up my nose to chestnuts like this one.

Not the same person as our student driver.  But it might as well be.  People who fall for these sort of tricks are the real llosers. 

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26 thoughts on “Student Driver subterfuge: are they really new and inexperienced, or merely incompetent?

  1. DianaLeigh

    I may be totally off here, but when I’ve seen those signs I actually thought they were Drivers Ed cars🚗. I suppose I never examined the rest of the vehicle to see whether it had a company sign on the side.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That would be an ideal situation….but I can’t imagine a drivers ed car is going to be parked outside a gym/grocery store at 7pm on a Friday! The site listed in the lower right corner of the sticker on these photos, Yacoto, seems to specialize in “STUDENT DRIVER” decals: https://www.amazon.com/stores/Yacoto/page/374B87B6-8094-43D1-B4BA-EA961E92D06A?ref_=ast_bln

      Compare that to the site I have hyperlinked on this blog article itself (an Indiana-based company) and they also offer alternatives like “ROOKIE DRIVER”.

      Reply
  2. Rebecca Berfanger

    I don’t think I’ve seen any of these stickers that weren’t companies teaching new drivers — but I also have not been on the road very much in the last year or so. Maybe it’s a regional thing? I also wouldn’t cut them any slack — we all have to follow the same rules if we want to live in a society. 😄

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Generally with you Rebecca. It may be a regional thing. I never noticed it elsewhere, though I do remember getting surprised a few years ago when I learned that today’s teens are spurning learner’s permits, since it seemed like the Student Driver decals weren’t any less common.

      I think there’s also a fine distinction between Student Drivers and merely new, young drivers. A student driver magnet should be on cars when a class is in session with the instructor in the vehicle as well, not at 10:30pm on a Tuesday (which is when I’ve seen them). But does a new, inexperienced driver get an excuse for careless or inept judgment behind the wheel? Not in my opinion!

      Reply
  3. Caille Sugarman-Banaszak

    So in the U.K. all learner drivers are required to have red L plates on the car. If the learner isn’t in the car you are supposed to remove them. When you pass .. you can choose to put a green P plate on it to let others drivers know you might be more scared. I’m not sure it does anything for safety too much.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good to know…I’m guessing those red L plates are state-issued and therefore not so easy to obtain, or to falsify? If there were a clear, uniform system, it might be easier to sympathize with inexperienced drivers’ plight here in the States. But my research for this article taught me that these stickers are easy to buy cheaply online. Obviously a perfect opportunity to abuse a well-intentioned practice. Lastly, it appears you have a means of distinguishing student drivers from new, inexperienced ones. While that seems to exist here as well through the signs, I’ve never seen the “Rookie Driver” or “New Driver” decals for sale from this Indiana-based company: https://studentdrivercarmagnets.com/

      Reply
    2. Caille Sugarman-Banaszak

      our red ones you can get at any shop – from grocery stores to hardware and auto repair shops. If you have one on- you have to have a sober, licensed driver beside you at all times – so it’s not a free pass for bad driving. The P might get you a bit of sympathy but again- we have a far less aggressive but also less lenient system. More speed cameras. The police really only stop you for things like driving without due care and attention, mobile phone use, and if a headlight or tail light is out. So the system is harder to play.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Something tells me “less lenient” and “more aggressive” go hand in hand…almost as though the former leads to the latter. It’s funny really: generally I’d agree that the US has far fewer speed cameras. But in DC, they apparently have the about same number as New York City, despite DC being about 1/10th the size. They’re everywhere in DC. And I learned the hard way in my first few months in the city.

        As for leniency, the one that really gets me in the US is the near complete absence of any standards for passing on four-lane highways. Not only to people love to pass in the right-hand lane, but the left-hand lane (which should be reserved for passing and high speed individuals) is popular for the slowpokes. We absolutely have a law, probably as well crafted as anywhere. But without enforcement, it’s meaningless…

        Good to know there also seems to be enforcement of your red and green magnets. Which endows them with actual meaning.

        Reply
        1. Caille Sugarman-Banaszak

          we actually have ‘smart’ highways and cameras on the inside lanes who will ticket you if you don’t get out of them… because as you’ve said they are for overtaking

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt Post author

            That’s probably the level of enforcement we’d have to see here in the States. I know that, in Indy (or maybe it was Indiana as a whole), there was a proposal to enforce the notion that the inside (left) lane on a highway MUST go to people at heightened speeds for passing, and if a slowpoke hogs the passing lane they will get ticketed. But I don’t know if anything happened to the bill, or if they had considered a lane-specific enforcement tool like you’re talking about. Virtually all policies simply HAVE to consider the potential for loopholes and workarounds, as well as the potential negative unintended consequences that might be even more harmful (i.e., the treatment is worse than the disease).

            Reply
            1. Chris B

              It’s law, and there was some enforcement the first year but since the Pandemic stay-home order expired I haven’t noticed anything on our busiest interstates.

              Reply
              1. AmericanDirt Post author

                Hmmm. There may not be enough traffic to justify monitoring it for enforcement purposes. Of course, it doesn’t take heavy traffic for serious violations to occur. Here in the DMV, there’s basically no concept of a passing lane.

                Reply
      2. RK Shaffer

        Honestly, people get behind the wheel and its like all bets are off. You talk to people in a store or coffee shop and they are the nicest, then they get behind the wheel and the alter ego takes over. Perhaps if there were less signage on the cars people wouldn’t travel so close (or fast). Apparently there are lots of nearsighted people trying to read all those bummer stickers. AND “Speed Limit” signs are really “Minimal Speed” limits. Just ranting, just came back from a road trip 😳 (k)

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Hi Russ–thanks for the observations. I agree in many respects: Americans are obsessed with personalizing their cars more than most people through magnets, decals, etc. Many years ago I went to South Africa and that was one of the first things I noticed: absolutely no bumper stickers on the cars. (Kind of weird to notice the absence of something.) Perhaps it’s a law, but it’s also just cultural–Americans are in their cars an awful lot, so perhaps that’s more why the appearance of a car has become just as much of a statement as the clothes we wear.

          Reply
        2. RK Shaffer

          not against personalizing (except for the colorful and insulting metaphors). Just wish people were as considerate in their cars as in person. Always enjoy your take on things. (“k” = karen)(k)

          Reply
  4. Chris B

    Driver’s Ed cars, at least here in your hometown, Eric, do still have the big signs on all sides.

    But how long is someone actually a “student driver”? While driving on a “learner’s permit”, so 6 months to a year? And one must typically drive on a permit with a supervising driver in the car. So maybe also during the “restricted license” period? Some states have age-based driver restrictions even after a license is earned…but still, those don’t typically last past age 18.

    I think this is at least partly the result of “overparenting” behavior.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      There probably is a lot of overparenting involved. Maybe I’m cynical in assuming they’re being used to dupe law enforcement. But the opportunity for such a practice definitely exists. I suspect the less urbanized states are particularly lax about the standards for obtaining a learner’s permit: you may just need to pass a very simple test at the age of 16 (or even 15, or 14 in places like the Dakotas). The fact that the “restricted license” period varies greatly adds for the opportunities for abuse.

      Reply
  5. Jerry M

    I put this in the same category as Proud Parent of an Honor Role Student. Both are odd ways to make statements. If this truly is a Student Driver, methinks the sticker would/should be HUGE!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Other people I know have compared this to the notorious “Baby on Board” stickers we used to see everywhere, as though that is really going to make a difference to a driver hellbent on getting from A to B as quickly as possible, rules be danged. The Student Driver stickers on drivers ed vehicles (at least in the past) really were huge, and they were on all four sides of a car. And yes, I do vaguely recall some of them even having an amber light.

      Reply
  6. Allison Guindon

    As a timid and somewhat inexperienced driver what with being carless for my 7 yrs in dc, this thought has occurred to me… less about being pulled over though and more about the assholes who tailgate, merge without warning, or break check 😭

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Sadly, those folks are ubiquitous. And it’s just as possible that THEY’LL be the ones with the stickers, which they use as an excuse. The biggest thing is semantic honesty: clearly very few people are actually “student drivers” and a drivers ed car isn’t going to be parked at a grocery store/gym at 7p on a Friday (as was the case here). Maybe they need a “NEW DRIVER” magnet? The student driver stickers are a dime a dozen online–Amazon or even special websites devoted to selling this decal and others like it…

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        You’re just going to have to place yourself extra low in the seat and get a curly gray/purple wig…show them you’re a bona fide granny-driver!

        Reply
  7. Cindy M.

    I noticed it as well. And when I see middle age man getting out the car with sticker, I say “Nay, it is a scheme!” So many are students, if that is in fact the truth, the driving schools should flourish, no? But is it not. Are they student of their nasty behaving parents? Then we are doomed, aren’t we?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Cindy– It’s always comforting knowing that I’m not the only one who sees through this scheme (precisely what it is). And, as schemes go, it’s a pretty inoffensive one: you can buy these stickers online in a 3-pack for around $7. (Not that cheap automatically equates to benign.) My fear is that it most likely is getting abused as an excuse for people to drive carelessly and erratically with the hope that law enforcement will let them off the hook. It could be worse: in Russia apparently you can purchase a rooftop rotating light/siren and convince people you’re a civilian emergency vehicle (perhaps not all cop cars are branded over there?) allowing people to breeze through traffic. Clearly nobody enforces the impersonation of an emergency vehicle over there. And here, nobody regulates the impersonation of a student driver.

      Reply

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