5 Ways to Reduce Racial Bias in Traffic Stops

To reduce racial-bias in traffic stops, we in the transport community need to respond Not in Our Name. We need to offer solutions to this problem. One way to start is to reduce traffic stops. While traffic safety remains important, many stops are not genuinely necessary from a safety perspective, and may not be the most effective ways to achieve that safety. Below I identify some strategies to this end, undoubtedly there are others.

  1. Automated Enforcement. Many traffic violations, like speeding and red-light running, can be effectively enforced by tireless and largely unbiased machines, avoiding the requirement for human interaction. Unfortunately, these are not legal in Minnesota, but they are widespread in other parts of the US. But the revenue from these should be returned to the taxpayer directly, not used as a piggy bank for local government. (See point 5)
  2. Inspections. Many states have standard annual vehicle inspection programs. Many vehicle violations (tail lights, mufflers, and so on) can be addressed at that time, and need not require police attention at all. Just as police do not enforce pollution control violations on a regular basis (although these may be about as deadly in the aggregate), they need not enforce minor vehicle condition issues.
  3. Secondary offenses. Most vehicle violations can be treated as secondary offenses rather than primary offenses, the way some states deal with seatbelts.  “Secondary” seat belt laws “state that law enforcement officers may issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt only when there is another citable traffic infraction.” In other words, if broken vehicles were secondary offenses, we could establish that vehicles not be stopped for these offenses, and only tickets written if some other stop was made for a more serious driving violation.
  4. Evidence-based safety regulation. Much of the safety regulation in the existing legal code was drafted in the middle of the 20th century, and based on engineering judgment, but not empirical evidence. It is time to review existing all existing traffic law implicit safety claims, decide which are important to be enforced, which can be enforced through an annual vehicle inspection process rather than through vehicle stops, and which can be secondary rather than primary offenses. An objective study, for instance by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, should review existing laws against existing empirical evidence. The aim would be to ensure traffic laws were evidence-based. After such a study, laws that are supported by evidence as being cost-effective ways to increase safety should be retained, laws lacking evidence require further study, and laws that evidence finds waste resources or are counter-productive should be changed.
  5. Fine reform. All revenue earned from traffic fines should be returned to citizens of the municipality, rather than kept by government agencies. This reduces the bureaucracy’s incentive for enforcement solely for the purpose of municipal finance. Fines are not taxes, and create perverse incentives, as was seen in Ferguson, Missouri among other places. The reforms should emphasize safety rather than revenue as the core. The redistribution could follow the model of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which pays a dividend to each year-long resident of the state. Cities and states that need revenue should raise taxes, rather than depending on, or worse encouraging, their citizens to break the law. Using a profit maximizing strategy for fines, which expects and induces violations, rather than a safety maximizing strategy for enforcement undoubtedly reduces safety to gain revenue.

Clearly these changes need to be made state-by-state, though the federal government should provide a carrot and stick through making them a condition of receiving highway funds, the way many other safety changes, like seatbelt and drunk driving laws, have been introduced, and by supporting review of traffic and vehicle codes. Eventually, with autonomous vehicles, some of these issues might become moot. But that hasn’t happened yet, and these changes should happen soon.

This will remove a tool from the police, taking away an excuse for stopping vehicles which may possibly be driven by criminals. So does the Fourth Amendment.

There are many other reforms that are needed, and better police training and methods are required. Lots has been written, much will continue to be written. We in the transport community can make progress here.