Guest Op-Ed: Alternative Traffic Enforcement to Re-Center Road Safety

Transportation has become the most policed aspect of daily life in the United States. The most frequent interactions between police and civilians are at traffic stops; over 20 million people are stopped every year on the road, representing over 80 percent of police-initiated contacts. Many people perceive these stops as a necessity for road safety and accept police presence on the road, but policing does not have an inherent role in traffic safety. Many of the tools that police use for traffic enforcement no longer serve primarily to prevent injuries and deaths on the road.

Given the significant racial disparities in policing, the current traffic enforcement system can be devastating for people of color. Black drivers are more likely to be stopped, searched, and shot than any other racial or ethnic group. Collective attitudes and institutional norms perpetuate a system in which Black drivers unjustly raise more suspicion than white drivers.

There is a disconnect between traffic safety goals and outcomes under the current traffic enforcement system. The following recommendations offer an alternative approach to traffic safety that can address issues of over-policing in traffic situations while making mobility both safer and more equitable.

Decriminalize violations unrelated to traffic safety

The police can effectively address issues of traffic safety when their actions are clearly defined, like when responding to crashes or clearly observed traffic safety violations like drunk driving. Problems arise, however, when there are opportunities for bias to influence traffic enforcement, specifically during discretionary traffic stops (also called investigatory or pretextual stops).

Instead of being a tool to save lives, discretionary stops are frequently used by police to find other violations of the law.[8] This practice is premised on the idea that increased police-citizen contact can create and maintain order in urban environments, but the minor violations that are used to justify full stops and searches of vehicles have little to no relation to road safety.

used as a pretext for stopping drivers are largely technical, and are holdovers from the early days of the automobile when additional regulations alone were thought to encourage safe driving behavior. These violations do not address the factors that actually tend to be associated with higher risks of accident severity, such as vehicle size and road design. Making a distinction between safety stops, which enforce traffic laws to reduce likelihood of a collision, and investigatory stops has been demonstrated to make traffic officers less reliant on stereotypes when making decisions.

In response to a consistently high crash rate, Fayetteville, North Carolina modified its traffic enforcement policy to de-prioritize stops for technical violations. Compared to neighboring cities that did not enact similar policies, Fayetteville saw a reduction in all motor vehicle crash outcomes, including both injuries and fatalities, while simultaneously reducing economic and racial burdens of traffic stops.

Imposing stricter guidelines on discretionary traffic stops – including for pedestrians and cyclists – can limit the opportunity for subjectivity and harassment on the road. Officials can de-emphasize enforcement and discretionary traffic stops in favor of design and policy changes – like lower speed limits, wider sidewalks, and improved street lighting – that directly address road safety.

Move traffic enforcement out of police departments

Another recommendation is to decouple the police from transportation enforcement. The City of Berkeley, California is moving in this direction by creating a new traffic safety department, BerkDOT, which will shift traffic enforcement responsibilities from police officers to planners and engineers. The focus of road safety interventions can then fit within a framework that prioritizes eliminating unsafe environments over deterrence of unsafe behaviors.

While Berkeley’s plan for traffic enforcement is the first such operation in the United States, it is not a novel concept. In New Zealand, traffic enforcement was successfully undertaken independently by both the New Zealand Police (Ngā Pirihimana o Aotearoa, in Māori) and the Traffic Safety Service (Te Manatū Waka, in Māori) until 1992. During this time, police officers had jurisdiction over enforcement but left most of the work to civilian traffic officers. The departments were merged due to financial concerns, although de-merging was recently re-evaluated to consider how to prioritize police resources towards serious crime and remove the revenue generation aspect of road policing. This approach was ultimately considered to be too expensive for New Zealand, but U.S. cities should conduct similar analyses to weigh the benefits and tradeoffs of shifting traffic enforcement to unarmed officers.

A major argument in favor of keeping police officers on traffic enforcement duties is the fact that police are armed, but there is little evidence to support the danger narrative that weapons are needed during a traffic stop. Excluding crashes, the odds an officer is killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million. Alternative approaches to traffic enforcement can remove the opportunity for potentially fatal conflicts, including utilizing road safety cameras, deescalating situations with unarmed officers, or re-engineering roads to prevent unsafe driving in the first place.

Reframe traffic enforcement within a safe systems approach

Re-establishing the role of traffic enforcement in society as a road safety measure and not a crime prevention tool is necessary to create healthier communities and re-gain trust in institutional support. An example of a systems-based approach that de-emphasizes the role of enforcement in traffic safety strategies can be seen in Oslo, Norway, which has drastically improved road safety over the last two decades by investing in significant road safety improvements.

Oslo not only made top-down changes to road design standards that prioritized slower and pedestrian-friendly streets (including establishing a car-free city center), but also received community support in educating vulnerable road users about the changes and encouraging mode shifts to reduce car traffic. Additionally, Oslo transferred traffic-controlling authority from the police to local government in 2015 and as a result was able to better create targeted safety solutions. Engineering, education, and equity are the priorities in Oslo, where street improvements have created a safer environment as opposed to an overreliance on enforcement.

Looking Forward

Many jurisdictions and transportation organizations have begun changing their approach to traffic enforcement. More work, however, is still needed from a state and federal level to shift traffic safety priorities in the United States. Although skepticism and political obstacles may make change difficult, localities interested in improving road safety outcomes can make progress even through small shifts away from the existing system of traffic enforcement.

Rather than focusing on enforcement, traffic safety efforts should prioritize implementation of safe systems designs through community collaboration and evaluation. Doing so can allow police officers to respond to more community-driven calls, eliminate scenarios that selectively target and burden low-income communities and people of color, and make our roads safer for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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