Chart of the Day: Traffic Stop Pretexts by Race

Via Quartz, here’s a chart showing the pretexts given for traffic stops broken down by race. The data is from 2011.

traffic stop pretext chart

David Levinson, former chair of the streets.mn board, has written a few terrific posts this week about the problem with traffic stops as a safety tool for US roads. In the first, he talks about how traffic stops contribute to the high rate of police killings in the US, where rates far exceed those of other comparable countries.

Here’s a quote:

But does that enforcement, which should be aimed at making our roads safer, require armed police officers pulling over men of color at a disproportionate rate because one tail light is out, and shooting them? Is this “enforcement” really about traffic safety? Or rather, is this just another way for municipalities to raise money in fines for minor violations, as was done in Ferguson, Missouri, or discourage people “who don’t belong” from traveling on the quiet streets of someone else’s neighborhood.

The next day, Levinson wrote again about how Police Departments ought to prioritize enforcement based on actual traffic harms:

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.

Both posts are good food for thought given the debate and discussion going on about race, policing, and the urban environment. Looking at conversations about police reform in the light of traffic safety allows us to think about some of the policy trade-offs in new light.


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