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New Jersey Program Marks Cars for Emergency Responders

The state's Yellow Dot program allows counties, cities and towns to offer car decals that tell emergency responders that critical health information is stored in the motorist's glove compartment.

Ford-Iroquois (Illinois) Public Health Department
Drivers in New Jersey may soon notice new yellow decals on the backs of vehicles. Gov. Chris Christie signed a law Jan. 23 that allows counties and municipalities to establish a Yellow Dot program -- a simple, low-tech system for documenting people’s medical conditions and notifying emergency response personnel that the information is stored in the vehicle.

“In many cases, certainly in an emergency, people get excited, they get upset, sometimes they forget what they’re on or they may be incapacitated or not know what they’re on,” says state Sen. Robert Singer, who co-sponsored the legislation.

The bill allows counties, cities and towns to set up their own Yellow Dot programs. While each local program may vary, the core elements would be the same:

  • a yellow decal placed on the driver’s side rear window
  • a card with health information placed inside a yellow envelope stored in a glove compartment
The health card would include emergency contacts, any pre-existing conditions, medications, the name and contact information for the driver's physician, and more. Singer gave the example of a someone involved in a car accident who happens to be on blood thinner for a heart condition. Emergency responders would want to know that the medication could make it difficult for the person’s blood to clot.

The first state to establish a yellow dot program was Connecticut in 2002, according to Anne S. Teigen, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Unlike New Jersey, Connecticut's program began as administrative policy through its department of motor vehicles. Counties throughout the country have established yellow dot programs throughout the past decade, but the advent of state laws in support of the programs is relatively new. Six states considered bills to create yellow dot programs through their departments of transportation in 2012, but only Tennessee enacted a law. New Jersey appears to be the second to pass a law establishing yellow dot programs, Teigen says.

It's unclear how often the program helps emergency responders at the scene of an accident. The Forecaster, a Maine newspaper, documented an incident last year in which an 83-year-old tennis player suffered a heart attack and head injury. Responders found his vehicle with the yellow dot decal and quickly located his health information, which detailed his heart arrhythmia, clotting condition and blood thinner medication. "The program saved my life," the man told the newspaper. Jonathan Adkins, the deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says his group is highly supportive of yellow dot programs because "it is a low-cost tool to keep older drivers safe." Adkins says he expects more states and localities to adopt yellow dot programs in the future.

The New Jersey legislation, which passed last year, enjoyed bipartisan support. Singer, a Republican, introduced the Senate version of the bill along with Richard Codey, a Democrat. In the Senate, 39 voted in favor the bill, with only one lawmaker not voting. In the General Assembly, 65 voted in favor and 7 voted against. The only real controversy, Singer says, was whether to establish a state program, or leave it to the localities. “It just made it more economical to be handled at the city and county level,” he says. Counties and towns already have offices of aging that deal with residents in their 60s and older -- the population Singer had in mind in when drafting the legislation.

The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services noted that the program could incur a net negative cost to localities, depending on how many people choose to get the yellow decals. However, the legislation allows localities charge an administrative fee to offset any associated costs.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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