First Highway & Transit Subcommittee Hearing of 2021 Tackles Racial Disparities in Traffic Enforcement

On Wednesday February 24, the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held its first hearing of 2021 on Examining Equity in Transportation Safety Enforcement. Witnesses included:

  • Larry Sandigo, Former Chair of the Community Advisory Board formed in Maricopa County in the wake of Melendres v. Arpaio, a federal case involving the county’s Sheriff’s Department
  • Lorraine Martin, President and CEO of the National Safety Council
  • Michelle Ramsey Hawkins, a survivor of a drunk driving incident and volunteer with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)
  • Ken Barone, Project Manager at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University
  • Dr. Rashawn Ray, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution.

The subcommittee discussed the current role of law enforcement in traffic safety and how NHTSA’s traffic safety grants could be targeted to encourage states to combat racial profiling in traffic enforcement.

Federal Funding

A recurring theme throughout the hearing was the role of NHTSA grants in combating racial bias in traffic enforcement. In her opening remarks, Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) focused on the committee’s jurisdiction over NHTSA traffic safety grants (specifically the Section 402 and 405 programs), which states can use to combat unsafe driving behaviors, fund public outreach efforts on safe driving behaviors, improve traffic safety information systems, or fund enforcement of traffic laws.

Chair Norton noted that a large portion—nearly $200 million—of NHTSA safety grants are dedicated to law enforcement activities. Several representatives, including Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R-IL) voiced their opposition to any efforts to restrict the ability to use NHTSA traffic safety funds on law enforcement.

Mr. Barone’s testimony largely centered on the role of NHTSA’s Section 1906 program in establishing Connecticut’s successful Racial Profiling Prohibition Project. Section 1906 was established in 2005 under SAFETEA-LU, and assists states in enacting a law prohibiting racial profiling in traffic enforcement, as well as making data on all motor vehicle stops, including race and ethnicity of vehicle occupants, publicly available.

While Connecticut had already passed an anti-profiling law in 1999, it struggled to fully implement the law and develop a robust data collection system. Since receiving Section 1906 funding, Connecticut has developed an electronic data collection system across 107 law enforcement agencies, and collected nearly 91 million data points from 3.5 million traffic stops. The program has also allowed for statewide and departmental analysis of stop data to identify departments with the most racial disparities in traffic enforcement. This analysis is used to launch early interventions at individual law enforcement agencies. These interventions have included narrowly targeting traffic enforcement on hazardous moving violations that stop data suggest are most likely to identify impaired drivers and prevent crashes, as well as stopping consent searches. Mr. Barone and other witnesses encouraged Congress to reauthorize and expand funding for Section 1906 to provide other states the opportunity to develop similar programs.

Data Collection

Many witnesses emphasized the importance of publicly available traffic stop data for not only identifying racial disparities, but also developing targeted interventions. Mr. Sandigo’s testimony highlighted the series of reforms implemented after the Melendres v. Arpaio case, which ruled that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office violated the constitutional rights of Latino residents by systematically and illegally considering race as a basis for traffic enforcement decisions.

In its ruling, the court ordered the Sheriff’s Department to collect, analyze, and report data on traffic stops, as well as to deploy body-worn cameras. Sandigo cited the importance of regular, transparent, and jargon-free data reports in allowing the community to validate its experiences and helping inform the Community Advisory Board’s recommendations for traffic enforcement reforms.

Many members asked witnesses to share specific insights or success stories from their data collection efforts. Mr. Barone shared one example of Connecticut’s annual review of traffic stop data which found high racial disparities in traffic stops conducted by a small urban police department. Further analysis found that the departments’ use of license plate readers to address a statewide increase in unregistered vehicles was the largest contributor to high racial disparities in its traffic stops.

Driven by a belief that unregistered vehicles were likely a result of poverty due to increases in registration fees, the department had deployed plate readers in low-income neighborhoods, which were predominately non-white. Traffic stop data revealed the disparate impact of these stops on Latino residents, and found similar rates of unregistered vehicles in other parts of the community. The intervention led the department to more equitably target registration checks, resulting in significant drops in its vehicle search rate and racial disparities in traffic stops. 

Implicit Bias Training

Dr. Ray provided the committee with an overview of his lab’s virtual reality implicit bias training, and highlighted some of its successes. Dr. Ray is Director of The Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, which utilizes virtual reality software to conduct implicit bias training for officers. The lab tests officer’s reactions to various traffic stop scenarios, and measures their reactions, heart rate and eye movements, among other metrics.

These metrics can provide useful insight into officer behavior, including the relationship between driver demographics and how often officers look into a driver’s vehicle and whether an officer’s heart rate, stress levels, and decision-making capacity is impacted by a driver’s race. The lab has trained police departments in several states outside of Maryland and is currently exploring opportunities to bring training directly to agencies, rather than flying officers into the facility. Dr. Ray touted the importance of these implicit bias training programs and voiced support for Congressman Anthony Brown’s legislation to create a grant program to fund implicit bias training for traffic enforcement.

In response to member questions, Dr. Ray shared some unique takeaways from the lab’s trainings, which found that non-white officers were just as likely to exhibit implicit racial biases in traffic stops, and found that drivers with unfamiliar accents often resulted in increased heart rates and stress levels among officers during a stop. These findings underscored the importance of implicit bias screening across all law enforcement staff, and helped researchers identify specific biases and behaviors among individual officers to target in their trainings.

Automated Enforcement

In her opening testimony, Ms. Martin cited the importance of alternative enforcement methods like safe roadway design and automated traffic enforcement. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR) raised concern over the perception that red light cameras are used primarily to collect revenue from moving violations and solicited best practices from witnesses on using automated enforcement to encourage safe driving behaviors.

Martin cited the National Safety Council’s checklist on automated enforcement, which guides jurisdictions through the equity, planning, and oversight considerations necessary for successful deployment of automated cameras. She also agreed that public trust and resulting benefits of automated enforcement can erode if they are perceived as revenue generators, rather than a tool to improve safety.

Looking ahead

While much of the conversation and action on police funding and public safety reforms are taking place at the local level, testimony from witnesses highlighted the impact of NHTSA grant programs on data collection efforts and efforts to combat racial profiling.  As Congress gears up for reauthorization, there is likely to be additional focus on the role that existing and future DOT grant programs may play in addressing racial disparities in traffic enforcement.

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