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So, what is it about traffic stops?

By: Carl Wicklund & Robyn Robertson

*This blog discusses the role of traffic stops in road safety and does not refer to other types of vehicle stops by police at roadside.

It seems that traffic stops have become a newsworthy topic, sparking conversations about the role of policing in road safety across local, state, and national news outlets. A wide range of opinions have been expressed which have varied from a greatly reduced enforcement presence and curtailing of police powers all the way to calls for more consistent and stronger enforcement of traffic laws. This latter opinion has emerged in the face of dramatic increases in road traffic deaths which are believed to have resulted from the widespread lockdowns and physical distancing measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, there’s a confluence of different factors which have placed traffic stops front and center in discussions at all levels. This blog breaks down some of those perspectives surrounding traffic stops and provides context for the different types of stops and their respective impacts on road safety.

Are traffic stops increasing or decreasing?

There have been significant changes in the policing environment and the way in which traffic stops are prioritized and utilized in the past two decades. Overall, there’s been a general decline in the number of traffic stops each year, largely as a result of more resources being shifted away from traffic enforcement towards other priorities such as homeland security, criminal interdiction, and competing calls for service.

In addition, the recruitment and retention of new police officers has become more challenging for a variety of reasons including shrinking resources, violent crime, growing public scrutiny and criticism, and the significant increase in and the complexity of calls for service. Notably, recruitment and retention challenges are not unique to policing. Similar impacts have been experienced in education, trucking, and healthcare sectors to name a few.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic also dramatically reduced police enforcement in several ways due to physical distancing mandates as well as the substantial risks to police officers and other first responders who deal with the public daily. As evidence of this, more than 900 first responders died from the onset of COVID through to October 2021, and it is estimated that 2/3s of these deaths involved law enforcement (NHTSA, 2022).

Moreover, these circumstances unfolded against the backdrop of several high-profile and well-publicized incidents involving traffic stops over a period of years which resulted in civilian deaths or injuries of drivers and other vehicle occupants. In these cases, what began as a routine or typical vehicle stop quickly escalated into confrontational interactions or disputes with respect to the justification for the stop and/or depending on the tone and attitude of either the officer or the driver.

This factor, in particular, has prompted considerable and much-needed debate about not only practices used by the police during traffic stops, and concerns related to racial profiling, but more importantly the necessity of traffic stops as well as the various purposes for them. The intention of this critical review was to more clearly prioritize those stops with a tangible and direct impact on road fatalities.

What’s the purpose of traffic stops?

There are three general types or purposes for traffic stops: public safety, traffic violations that risk the safety of others on the road, and administrative stops. Examples of administrative stops include ensuring drivers have a valid license and insurance, that vehicles are properly registered with a license plate, and they are in fact roadworthy. While each of these stops plays a role in public safety and road safety, some types of stops have a more direct and immediate impact on road safety, whereas others are less clearcut and more difficult to demonstrate.

Moreover, traffic stops have garnered so much attention and debate for the simple reason that a routine traffic stop is one of the most common precursors to many people’s introduction to the justice system. Despite working in community corrections for more than 45 years and meeting and working with a wide range of law enforcement personnel, my experiences with them in a traffic stop have been rare, most recently being stopped by a highway patrol officer because a headlight was malfunctioning. Yet the nature of these interactions is incredibly important in defining people’s perceptions of policing and their faith in the justice system. In other words, that first experience in a traffic stop can ultimately shape and influence any future interactions with police during traffic stops.

Are there different types of traffic stops?

Yes, police can stop drivers in vehicles for different reasons; some of which have a direct impact on road safety whereas others are less clearly defined.

Traffic stops prevent unsafe behavior on the road which puts everyone at risk. These types of stops increase public safety by helping to ensure road users (including pedestrians) make it home safely every day. Drivers engaging in dangerous behaviors such as speeding, impairment, or distraction pose a demonstrable risk to themselves and others. These risks are leading factors in road crashes resulting in death every year. Risks can be accurately measured and are clearly linked to road deaths through a litany of research studies around the world. These behaviors dramatically increase the likelihood of being crash-involved and can result in the death and serious injury of other road users as well as the driver and any vehicle occupants. Traffic stops of drivers engaging in these behaviors have an immediate impact on public safety by removing these drivers from the road and/or deterring their risky driving behavior (i.e., through warnings, fines, and suspensions) to protect the lives of persons living in that community.

Traffic stops to enforce traffic laws and sanction violations. Traffic laws are designed to create a safe and predictable road environment in which drivers can anticipate the actions of other road users in a wide range of situations, and traffic flows smoothly. For example, drivers expect other drivers to stop at red lights or stop signs, to indicate and pass vehicles only when it’s safe to do so, to yield right-of-way, and to slow down and move over for first responders and other roadside workers. Drivers who run red lights, engage in unsafe passing on highways, and fail to yield or share the road pose a tangible risk to all other road users under certain conditions. I think we can all agree that letting drivers make their own choices about which road rules to follow just like diners at a buffet is a recipe for disaster. Needless to say, road rage and road deaths would no doubt rise dramatically, and it would take a lot more than an antacid to make us feel better.

The purpose of stops for serious traffic violations is to discourage drivers from making poor choices…especially those that are unlikely to end well.

Compliance with licensing, vehicle registration and safety, and insurance requirements. The final category of traffic stops pertains to administrative compliance checks to ensure drivers have met licensing standards and vehicles are roadworthy. It is this type of traffic stop that can be the most contentious and hotly debated because the impact on road safety is less direct, and because the range of violations falling into this category is so broad. For example, traffic stops can be for things like expired license tags, equipment failure violations, parking violations, no vehicle inspection or insurance, jaywalking, or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or without proper lighting. There are also times when law enforcement may do an investigatory stop to gather information related to an ongoing investigation or in the performance of a sobriety checkpoint. In these instances, the link to road safety appears more tenuous and less immediate. However, if compliance with driver licensing, vehicle registration, and safety standards is eroded over time, ultimately the consequence is roads that are less safe for everyone.

A prime example from this category are driver license checks. How often have we read news stories about suspended or revoked drivers who were at fault in a crash? These scenes leave everyone asking, why was this person even driving? Research has shown that suspended or revoked drivers are in fact more likely to be crash-involved than licensed drivers. In this instance, the road safety impact is much clearer. While these checks are important, the challenge is administering a transparent, equitable and reasonable practices to determine and justify who is stopped, when and why.

Why is there so much debate about traffic stops?

Much of this debate centers around these latter traffic stops focused on standards and regulations. In particular, a pressing concern expressed by citizens in many communities is how police discretion is utilized. A lack of clarity regarding which types of stops are prioritized in which communities and why can result in some populations being over-represented in stops, creating a real or perceived notion they are being unfairly targeted.

For this reason, while it’s true that administrative traffic stops of vehicles help ensure vehicles are road-worthy, meet regulatory requirements, and are a source of jurisdictional revenue, this has resulted in these stops being curtailed or, at least, less actively enforced in several jurisdictions. There has been considerable debate about the value of administrative stops and the public interest in ensuring drivers are licensed and vehicles are roadworthy compared to the potential for negative impacts on the freedom of movement. Very different perspectives on the validity of these latter stops can lead to confrontational exchanges with the potential to escalate. There is equal concern that fines associated with administrative stops have a disproportional impact on low-income people and ultimately limit their driving or vehicle registration privileges and/or result in arrest warrants.

Are there proposed strategies to increase road safety and the equity of enforcement?

Yes, the genesis of proposals to de-emphasize administrative traffic stops can be, in part, associated with what has been referred to as the Fayetteville Intervention. Political leadership in Fayetteville, North Carolina needed to address a consistently high number of vehicle crashes while at the same time trying to quell community tensions related to vehicle searches that disproportionately involved African American residents. A newly appointed Police Chief voluntarily asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to review the department’s practices and policies. The DOJ report provided evidence of racial disparities in traffic stops. However, it also recommended that Fayetteville implement a system to determine the intersections with most crashes, so they would be able to apply targeted and transparent traffic enforcement in those areas. The results led to a greater priority being placed on road safety stops and lower priority on administrative stops.

As a result of this initiative, Fayetteville’s annual traffic stops, vehicle crashes, and crime data from 2002 to 2016 were analyzed to measure intervention effects from 2013-2016. During the intervention, there was an increase in the percentage of safety stops with a corresponding decrease in administrative and investigatory stops further resulting in a reduction in racial disparities in all traffic stops. When compared with traffic safety outcomes in eight other similar N.C. agencies, Fayetteville increased the number of traffic safety stops while vehicle crashes and injuries were reduced. This included reductions in fatalities (28%), crash injuries (23%), and total crashes (13%). They also realized improved relations within minority neighborhoods. Thus, the prioritization of traffic safety stops can have positive public health consequences both for motor vehicle injury and racial disparity outcomes.

Looking forward

Although no one policing strategy can be credited for an overall reduction in crashes or improved public relations with communities, putting a priority focus on risky driving behaviors seems to make road safety, workforce deployment, and public relations sense. A recent report commissioned by the Los Angeles City Council from the transportation department suggested that most traffic enforcement in the city be conducted by civilian workers along with major infrastructure upgrades that improve safety along city streets that are among the nation’s deadliest. Even though it can be argued that enforcing vehicle equipment and registration/licensing violations are strategies to make roadways safer, the enforcement through traffic stops of these non-driving issues by armed law enforcement officers may distract from the focus on and enforcement of more dangerous risky driving behaviors as well as other public safety concerns. Additionally, de-emphasizing administrative stops may help improve law enforcement’s relationships with the people they are hired to protect.

Another tool designed to improve the quality of interactions between police and the public during traffic stops comes from the VALOR Safer Together training program created by the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice. This program provides instruction to officers about strategies to build positive partnerships with the communities they serve in ways that both reduce crime and ensure community safety and wellness. This course teaches officers to build trust, one interaction at a time, such as during traffic stops, as a way to not only improve community relations but also reduce crime and enhance officer well-being. Positive interactions are the foundation to increase public confidence in law enforcement as well as underscore the role of officers and community members working together to increase public safety. In this regard, when police inspire trust and feelings of safety, people are more likely to cooperate with them which, in turn, helps to de-escalate interactions and prevent violent outcomes.

Alternatively, prioritizing safety stops may help to prevent traffic crash fatalities, reduce real or perceived racial disparities, and avoid potential violations of citizen rights. In turn, these changes have the potential to improve law enforcement’s reputation and relationships with citizens by avoiding a potentially confrontational encounter over what some would consider a nuisance or petty reason.

#MySafeRoadHome blog authors: Carl WicklundTIRF USA Senior Advisor and Robyn Robertson, TIRF President & CEO work collaboratively as co-authors, drawing from Robyn’s breadth of knowledge on topics and Carl’s 50 years of experience in the criminal justice/corrections/human services field. Carl previously developed and managed several community-based programs for justice-involved individuals, served as Court Services Director for a three-county community corrections system, was for 20 years the Executive Director of the American Probation and Parole Association, and more recently was Director of the Community Justice Division of Volunteers of America – Minnesota/Wisconsin. He has been an active member of TIRF’s Working Group on DWI System Improvements since its inception in 2004. Robyn is the author of TIRF’s knowledge translation model and is well-versed in implementation strategies and operational practices across several sectors.

Source documents and resources:

Equity in Highway Safety Enforcement and Engagement Programs. A report by Kimley-Horn for the Governors Highway Safety Association
SAFE MOBILITY IS A RIGHT, Vision Zero Communities Should Commit to Equity from the Start
Impaired Driving & Road Safety Leadership, March 17, 2022
Civil rights lawyers hope rest of Canada will follow Quebec in ending random police stops, October 2022,
An end to random police stops? The Superior Court of Quebec has overturned a police practice used as a “safe harbour” for racism. December 2022
Why do so many police traffic stops turn deadly? January 2023
David Bird

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