Greatest Hits #6: Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop (2016)

February 25, 2019

We have a public safety epidemic in America. And it starts and ends on our roadways. In 2017, over 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. More people are killed in traffic each year than by firearms. And a huge proportion of those crashes involve vehicles that are speeding—26% of them, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Pick just about any news report or radio or TV interview on this topic at random, and you’re likely to hear two solutions discussed: education and enforcement. By enforcement, we usually mean traffic stops.

Unfortunately, the most common way we enforce speed and other moving violations—through routine, “investigatory” traffic stops by police—ends up leaving road users, law enforcement, and communities all less safe, while potentially distracting us from the things we really ought to be doing if we want to bring that 40,000 statistic down dramatically.

A Call to End the Routine Traffic Stop

In July 2016, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn published a call for communities to end routine traffic stops. Marohn took this stance in the wake of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by an officer in Minnesota on July 6, 2016 after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Subsequent reporting revealed that Castile, a 32-year-old man, had been pulled over by police 49 times, usually for extremely minor offenses.

This is not an uncommon experience for young black men, which Castile was, and is indicative of the way traffic stops are often used in low-income, high-crime communities: as a sort of surveillance tool that allows police to detect other illegal activity. Key to the usefulness of traffic stops as an all-purpose crime fighting tool—a pretext to pull over anyone you want to check out—is the fact that nearly everyone breaks traffic laws routinely.

Speeding. Rolling stops. Turning or merging without signaling. Nearly everyone breaks traffic laws routinely.

In this July 2016 episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, the 6th in our Greatest Hits series, Marohn delves into the reasons he called routine traffic stops a poor way to address both speeding and criminal behavior:

They’re indiscriminate: It’s not uncommon to find roads all over America where the vast majority of drivers are exceeding the speed limit. In fact, we design our roads to all but ensure this: the engineering principle of “forgiving design” (where it’s the mistakes of the driver that are forgiven, not so much the pedestrian) means that a road with a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour might have straight, even, wide lanes that make it psychologically comfortable to go as fast as 60 miles per hour. On such a road, given the constant focus it takes to keep to a lower speed, it’s no surprise that many drivers don’t.

They’re dangerous for police: Traffic stops are the single most dangerous activity that many police officers themselves engage in. More officers are killed and injured doing these stops than doing anything else.

They’re oppressive to heavily-policed communities: When traffic stops are used as a surveillance and crime detection mechanism instead of for the express purpose of catching the most reckless and dangerous drivers, it’s no surprise that enforcement targets some communities—and some demographics—more than others. Marohn thinks there have to be better ways to control crime rather than through this practice:

“If you’re telling me the only way we can begin to control crime in high-crime areas is to use traffic laws as a random pretext to get up in people’s business… I’m sad. That was certainly not the intention of the founding fathers… of the 4th Amendment. That’s not the type of civil society that any of us aspire to live in.”

A Better Answer to Chronic Speeding: Fix the Design

The way we deal with the mismatch between posted speed and design speed when we detect it is backwards. In the podcast, Marohn describes the 85th percentile rule: the speed limit, according to engineering manuals, should be set at the speed that the 85th-percentile driver is going. If significantly more than 15% of drivers on a road are speeding, do we redesign the road? No. We raise the posted speed limit. Or, more often, we leave the status quo alone—a situation where most drivers speed, and speeding enforcement catches people more or less at random instead of targeting the truly deviant, reckless drivers. Says Marohn:

“If I’m the mayor of a city, I want to know where people are speeding. Give me a map. And then I want to deploy my engineers, my planners, my urban designers to those speeding spots, and I want them redesigned so people drive slower. And we’re going to keep iterating, back and forth, until the vast majority—85%—of the people are driving at a speed that is safe. … And now my police force can pull over speeders. Because they only people they’re going to get now are the deviants.”

There you have a humane and effective way to deal with the real problem: deadly speeds on far too many of our streets.