Alternative Traffic Enforcement to Re-Center Road Safety

2021


Summary

Transportation has become the most policed aspect of daily life in the United States; over 20 million people are stopped every year on the road, representing over 80% of police-initiated contacts. Many of these stops are not necessary for road safety. Pretextual traffic enforcement action is often used to search for contraband, not to prevent death and injury on the road. Additionally, there is a preponderance of evidence that discretionary traffic stops demonstrate racial bias. Police unjustly require higher levels of suspicion to search white drivers than Black or Hispanic drivers. And about a quarter of police shootings begin with a traffic stop, with Black motorists more likely to be shot during these stops than any other racial or ethnic group.

Despite continued economic and racial violence, there is a disconnect between traffic safety planning and enforcement outcomes. Even Vision Zero, the ethical imperative to eliminate severe and fatal injuries on the road, relies on deterrence-focused enforcement that enables bias and accommodates harassment. Re-establishing the role of traffic enforcement can address issues of over-policing in traffic situations while making mobility both safer and more equitable.

Through support provided by SafeTREC and the CSCRS Road Safety Fellowship I researched and identified practices to re-center safety within transportation enforcement. Recommendations made from an international literature review and conversations with professionals are being compiled in a guidebook for communities that have been burdened by injuries on the road and discriminatory policing. The guidebook will include the following recommendations.

Recommendations

Decriminalize violations unrelated to traffic safety

Discretionary stops for minor violations represent nearly all incidents of racial disparity in traffic enforcement. Making a distinction between safety stops (enforcing road rules to reduce likelihood of a collision) and investigatory stops (using the road rules as a pretext to look inside a vehicle) has been demonstrated to make people less reliant on stereotypes when making decisions. Imposing stricter guidelines on discretionary enforcement will limit the opportunity for subjectivity and harassment on the road.

Ban stops of non-vehicular road users

Vision Zero encompasses more than just drivers. Although they represent fewer serious and fatal injuries than motorists, pedestrians and cyclists are inequitably burdened by traffic violence. Penalizing pedestrians and cyclists is not the answer to very preventable deaths. Alternatives like lower speed limits, wider sidewalks, and improved street lighting are all engineering solutions that directly address road safety and should be prioritized within Vision Zero.

Rely on automated technologies

Road safety cameras are an unbiased administrator of the vehicle code and are proven to reduce death and serious injury on the road. Cameras placed in fixed locations with clear signage (to inform road users of dangerous environments and create new social norms with respect to appropriate speeds) can remove subjectivity from the road and emphasize transparency and fairness in traffic safety.

Improve data collection of crashes and stops, test for disparities

Many traffic enforcement programs rely on data to identify locations in need of safety interventions. However, the traditional focus on deterrence and crime control reinforces the need for increased policing. A stronger method for focusing on traffic safety combines continuous data collection, statistical techniques that test for disparities (i.e., veil of darkness analysis, hit rate tests), and forums with officers and community members to initiate interventions. For many places this will require collecting new information. Often, data on location and violation type are missing from traffic reports. Collecting reasons for stops and the universe of all stops (i.e., not just people who were stopped and given a citation or arrested) can illuminate whether discrimination is present.

Balance downstream effects

Traffic enforcement includes the whole process from before and during a traffic stop to the arrest, ticketing, and subsequent judicial process. Discussions on alternative transportation enforcement often focus on the stop itself, but the over-enforcement of transportation can create cycles of poverty due to fines and fees from tickets, especially for people of color who are disproportionately stopped on the road. Communities looking to implement reforms should consider policies that support principles of social justice, like in Finland where the penalty for moving violations is connected to the taxable income of the offender.

Reframe traffic enforcement within Vision Zero

There is a need to update the core goals of Vision Zero to acknowledge that existing enforcement policy is unsafe for people of color. Communities can reduce reliance on enforcement by replacing the “E” for Enforcement in Vision Zero with Equity and Engagement. For example, in 2015 Oslo, Norway transferred some traffic-controlling authority from the police to local government and saw reductions in road deaths and serious injury. By de-emphasizing enforcement in favor of developing community support for vulnerable road users, Oslo was able to better create targeted safety solutions.

Move traffic enforcement operations to the transportation department

In July 2020, following years of grassroots activism and sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, the city council of Berkeley, California voted for an omnibus motion to reform policing. This motion directs Berkeley to create a new, non-police traffic officer program within the department of transportation. This will shift responsibility from police officers to planners and engineers. The focus of road safety interventions can then fit within the Vision Zero 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 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. It was concluded to be too expensive for New Zealand, but for places in the US where officers are armed there could be significant benefits to removing the opportunity for conflict at traffic stops via unarmed traffic officers. Separating police action from traffic safety can redevelop relationships between police and communities while prioritizing safety through design.

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