A revived debate: What role should police play in traffic safety? |MinnPost

Bill Lindeke wrote an excellent piece “A revived debate: What role should police play in traffic safety?” at MinnPost


Even with a groundswell of support, decoupling cops and traffic safety remains a key challenge. Police spend a large amount of their time dealing with problems associated with driving, mostly responding to crashes, which also ties up court systems. (See this anecdotefrom a judge in Washington state, claiming that 90% of their cases had to do with car accidents.)

“While it would be nice if our transport facilities were all self-enforcing, discouraging bad behavior through good design, we are nowhere near that yet,” replied David Levinson, when I asked him about this topic. Levinson, a civil engineering professor, headed the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory for years before moving to Australia to take a position at the University of Sydney.

Rethinking policing is not something new to Levinson. After the killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights during a traffic stop in 2016, Levinson wrote two posts on his blog outlining reforms to police enforcement of traffic rules. In them, he called for reducing racial bias in policing, through five potential changes like vehicle inspections, fine reform, and decreasing primary offenses.

But he remains skeptical about removing police altogether.

“I would say there needs to be some enforcement, but it does not need to be traditional police enforcement in the vast majority of cases,” he said. “Random enforcement, like police just hanging out looking for broken taillights, is unnecessary and there is no evidence that it increases safety. Similarly, programs targeting pedestrians are without evidence in improving safety, as far I have seen.”


While most transportation advocates agree that traditional tickets are not the central solution to traffic safety, other enforcement approaches prove much more divisive. Most notably, automated speed and red-light cameras engender dramatically different reactions. On one hand, both Morris and Levinson believe they are a better solution than police, and point to studies in support of this approach.

“I have been studying automated speed enforcement (ASE) for many years and I still believe it is an effective alternative to in-person enforcement,” explained Morris. “There are still risks to automated enforcement regarding decision making on where to place cameras and how to implement a fee structure. Each decision could result in disproportional impacts or harm on minority populations if not done thoughtfully.”

According to Morris, speed cameras, like the ones deployed around New York City schoolsand in other countries, also reduce bias, so that white drivers are not more likely to be let off with a warning, and additionally pose “little risk of escalation or violence” by police officers.

It’s a sentiment shared by Levinson, who sees cameras as a solution: “There is strong evidence that photo enforcement of speeding and red-light running is effective, if also abused in different ways, notably as a cash cow, and deployment needs to not just be in poor neighborhoods.”

Comment: You can find lots of articles on the effectiveness of programs via Google Scholar.

Specific programs like sobriety checkpoints also are effective in catching and deterring impaired driving.