Not in our name

Traffic rules and regulations are the pretext for enforcing the crime of Driving While Black. The use of traffic stops putatively for traffic safety, but in fact for revenue or harassment of minorities is wrong.

This is not to say there is no use for traffic enforcement, even though evidence is mixed as to its effectiveness. We can stipulate real enforcement probably does reduce traffic safety.  So long as there are humans driving cars, there will be humans driving cars badly. Automatic surveillance has successfully reduced much bad behavior like speeding and red-light running. This can be done systematically, and not randomly, and thereby both avoid bias and be more effective.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Yet think of what many of the actual stops are for. Not speeding or moving violations, but for vehicles out-of-perfect-order. The broken taillight is illustrative. How many lives have been saved by traffic stops who informed the drivers of vehicles that one of their brake lights is out?*  I could not find a peer-reviewed article on whether broken taillight enforcement is effective in increasing safety. No one has felt it worthy of study in the traffic safety community. The broken taillight does show up as an issue of pretext, the legally protected excuse law enforcement gives to pull someone over because they want to inspect the vehicle or the occupants.

Clearly we want cars with working taillights. Minnesota law requires 2 working stop lights for cars manufactured after 1960 (but not for motorcycles). But this is also not a high priority.

If we actually cared about taillights, there is an alternative scenario.  Police (or better a machine) could have just photographed the car and mailed a fine to the address on record of the owner of the car, which would hold up annual registration if not paid and if no proof of repair provided. The car would eventually get fixed.

Instead, we have the scenario, which if it had gone well, finds the driver (not necessarily the owner) gets a stern lecture and a fine. There is no actual guarantee of the repair.

But if we cared about traffic safety the time and resources the police spend on harassing vehicles with broken taillights could be spent on something more serious: actual drunk drivers, actual speeders, actual red-light runners. The evidence argues this was not about traffic safety.

  • Everyone involved in the transportation  professions should say “Not in our name”.
  • Everyone who advocates for traffic safety should say “Not in our name”.
  • Everyone who plans roads, sidewalks, and neighborhoods should say “Not in our name”.

We in the transport community need to advocate for measures that truly improve traffic safety, and advocate against slippery measures that are used as pretext in racism or drug war enforcement or municipal fundraising.

* There are studies about bicycle lights being effective.

12 thoughts on “Not in our name

  1. Small municipalities that are not economically viable rely on fines. It’s predatory.


  2. As someone who worked in the transit industry for over forty years, I believe we need to acknowledge the role transportation has played in economic and racial segregation. On the highway side, the history of highways destroying minority neighborhoods is well documented.
    On the transit side, we supply transit services in the suburbs that average much higher subsidies per passenger than exists in lower income areas of the core. We have a BRT line in the southern suburbs that costs several times what LRT costs in both operating and capital budgets. We tend to talk about minutes of travel time and the geographic distribution of lines on maps rather than matching services to need, efficiency and cost.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you. Quite insightful (without being inciteful, which probably isn’t a word). For many years, I’ve been of the opinion, like Boris above, that most of what is called “traffic safety” is all about revenue. If it were about safety, all law enforcement officers (and other local gov’t employees, for that matter) would be model drivers. They are not. If it were all about safety, and getting people to obey speed limits, the word “speed trap” wouldn’t exist because patrol cars would measure speed without hiding. It’s not – it’s all about the Benjamins.

    Not in my name, either.


  4. Personal enforcement (as opposed to “photograph and mail a ticket”) should be for moving violations which immediately threaten other peole. But for some reason, cops typically don’t bother to catch those people. Too much work, I guess.


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