American roads have become deadlier than before the pandemic, and many are attributing this to a decrease in policing after the George Floyd protests of 2020. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the fatality rate, which is deaths per million miles traveled, is about 18% higher than in 2019. In contrast, other Western countries did not experience the same sustained increase in traffic deaths.
Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the GHSA, believes that the decrease in policing led to many people driving dangerously because they thought they could get away with it. He notes that there is not enough enforcement on the roads, and many police officers are hesitant to write tickets.
Seattle police officer Carol Cummings, who requested traffic stops data from the city, found that traffic citations by police were down about 86% compared to 2019. The Seattle Police Chief, Adrian Diaz, explains that this is due to staffing levels and call loads. His department lost hundreds of officers after the George Floyd protests of 2020, and he had to cut dedicated traffic details.
Susan Nembhard, a research associate with the Urban Institute, believes that traffic stops can be dangerous interactions, particularly for people of color and specifically Black people. She has argued for limiting those stops. As a result, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and even the state of Virginia have adopted formal policies limiting traffic stops for minor violations. Seattle has also instructed officers not to pull cars over for certain non-moving violations, such as expired license tags and obstructions hanging from the rear-view mirror.
While these new policies reduce the number of contacts between police and citizens, some believe that they have also reduced drivers’ impression that they’ll be stopped for more serious violations, such as running red lights. However, Adkins says that the Governors Highway Safety Association believes in equitable enforcement and could accept restrictions on stops for technical violations, as long as drivers are still stopped when they’re doing something dangerous. Cummings believes that many drivers follow the law because they know it makes sense, but some people drive dangerously, and without enough enforcement on the roads, they are the ones putting themselves and others at risk.
Is it possible to find a balance between reducing unnecessary traffic stops and ensuring public safety through traffic enforcement? The decrease in traffic stops for minor violations may have unintended consequences, such as drivers feeling that they can get away with more serious violations, and ultimately making the roads more dangerous. On the other hand, limiting these stops could also help reduce the number of dangerous interactions between police and citizens, particularly for people of color. Striking a balance between equitable enforcement and public safety is crucial to improving road safety in the United States.