Redesigning Public Safety on the Roads

By , Manager, Policy Research

In the United States, traffic stops are one of the most common reasons that individuals come into direct contact with law enforcement. More than 20 million people experience such stops every year, but a significant portion of these stops fail to produce any safety—and all carry the risk of debt, trauma, and violence. 

Indeed, the enforcement of traffic violations is persistently discriminatory. One analysis of more than 20 million records of traffic stops in North Carolina found that from 2002 through 2016 Black people, who make up less than 25% of the state's population, were 63% more likely than White people to be stopped while driving—despite being 16% less likely to drive. Accounting for differences in driving habits, Black drivers were actually 95% more likely to be stopped than White drivers. 

In North Carolina, as in the rest of the country, Black drivers are often pulled over for what are known as pretextual, or pretext, stops. In such stops, police officers exploit a minor traffic violation, such as a broken tail light, as a pretext to look for evidence of serious crime—what amounts to vehicular stop and frisk. Conducting traffic stops based on hunches, racial bias, or, as is often the case, to meet local budgetary needs with the resultant fines and fees, doesn’t make roads safer. There is simply no evidence that pretextual stops reliably reveal serious crime, nor that they improve road safety. Even as the country has invested huge sums in excessive, broad, and biased enforcement, the number of annual traffic fatalities in the U.S. has grown and is now 50% higher than that in peer nations. Road deaths in the European Union, by contrast, have dropped 36% since 2012.

CPE's recently published White Paper, Redesigning Public Safety: Traffic Safety, and its accompanying webinar, Driving Toward Equity: Racial Justice in Road Safety, address two urgent national conversations around traffic safety that have typically been framed as separate issues: How can we effectively address racially biased enforcement? And how can we stem the rising tide of traffic fatalities, which also have an inequitable impact on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities? The White Paper and webinar place the facts into their broader context, provide necessary analyses, and offer holistic recommendations for improving outcomes, reducing the harms of the status quo, and building safer communities.

The gross injustice of racially biased enforcement is troubling unto itself, but it also sets into motion a cascade of interrelated harms for millions of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, as well as people of any background who are living in poverty. For example, fines and fees are compounded when a driver is unable to pay them immediately, leading to mounting debt, the suspension of driver's licenses, and the potential loss of employment, making it yet harder to escape the cycle of punishment. 

Moreover, in some states unpaid fines and fees can lead to arrest warrants, escalating the potential harms of the interaction exponentially, which too often include injury, death, and communal trauma. Black people are not only more likely to be stopped by police while driving, but they are also more likely to be searched once stopped, to have force used against them, and to be killed by police at vehicle stops. Before Philando Castile was shot and killed by police at a routine traffic stop, for instance, the 32-year-old had been pulled over at least 46 times and subjected to more than $6,000 in fines.

Racially biased traffic enforcement serves not to increase but to actively endanger the safety of millions of Black, Brown, and Indigenous drivers, passengers, and communities, especially in light of longstanding racist federal transportation policies and chronic disinvestment in road safety infrastructure. Policy choices such as redlining, highway placement, and inequitable public transit access have meant, for instance, that Black and Indigenous people are far more likely than others to be killed in traffic crashes, whether in a car or on foot. A recent study found that,per mile traveled, Black people in the U.S. were killed by cars at rates 4.5 times higher than White people when cycling and 2.2 times higher when walking.

The dual crises of inequitable enforcement and rising traffic fatalities demand a thorough re-examining of the systems that are supposed to provide road safety. Creating genuinely safer roads will require investing in evidence-led strategies that prevent dangerous driving, decrease the harms of normal human driving error, and address the disproportionate burdens on Black, Brown, and Indigenous drivers.

The recommendations in Redesigning Public Safety: Traffic Safety offer strategies for activists, communities, and policymakers seeking to build a more just traffic safety system, one where all users of the road—including drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists—are safe from injury, harassment, and racial profiling. The White Paper addresses the physical, psychological, and economic harms caused by enforcement that is unfair, inequitable, and burdensome, looking particularly at preventable personal debt, unnecessary criminal legal system entanglement, and the lasting trauma that can flow from even a single traffic stop.

Redesigning traffic safety will mean ending the use of traffic enforcement as an excuse to conduct criminal investigations that are rooted in systemic racial bias, ending the imposition of onerous fees and fines for the sake of city coffers, and investing in community-supported strategies that do not rely on armed enforcement, perpetuate systemic discrimination, or compound existing traumas. Such solutions already exist, and are working—South Bend, Indiana, for instance, has piloted traffic-calming tools such as traffic circles that have successfully reduced speeding numbers without increasing enforcement.

Communities seeking to redesign their traffic safety systems can begin by gathering information that would help prioritize the recommendations they may want to implement. This might include pinpointing where crashes, pedestrian risk, and traffic stops are highest; determining where infrastructure failures have happened as a result of disinvestment driven by systemic racism; or determining which enforcement activities appear to be contributing to traffic safety vs. those that appear to be driving inequity. 

Gathering this information can be the first step to answering questions such as: Where should communities prioritize infrastructure investment in order to prevent collisions and reduce the need for enforcement? Where are police responding to traffic issues when no response is necessary? Where are armed officers responding to traffic issues when an unarmed response could be equally (or more) effective? And what legal and other reforms are required to stem the systemic use of racially inequitable traffic enforcement? 

As community advocates, elected leaders, police departments, transportation officials, and other stakeholders grapple with these important questions, it is critical to center, engage, and seek leadership from those most affected by disparities in their current systems. People who are directly affected by existing burdensome systems have long known that genuine safety requires equal access to resources as well as equitable treatment. Their expertise is fundamental to redesigning a broader, more holistic, and more just vision of traffic safety.

CPE Traffic Safety Resources: