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America's roads are more dangerous, as police pull over fewer drivers

Some police think a pullback in traffic enforcement may be contributing to more reckless driving.
Tom Merton
Getty Images
Some police think a pullback in traffic enforcement may be contributing to more reckless driving.

American roads are deadlier than they were before the pandemic and many are looking at changes in police traffic enforcement as a cause.

Deaths spiked during 2020, and the fatality rate — deaths per million miles traveled — is still about 18% higher now than in 2019.

"It is, unfortunately, an American phenomenon," says Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Other Western countries did not see thesame sustained increase in traffic deaths, and he thinks one important difference is a pullback in policing, following the George Floyd protests of 2020.

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"Why do many of us drive dangerously on the roads? Because we think we can get away with it. And guess what — we probably can right now in many places in the country," says Adkins. "There's not enforcement out there, they're hesitant to write tickets. And we're seeing the results of that."

Carol Cummings is convinced that's what's happening. She's a retired police officer who lives in Seattle, where she's noticed an increase in dangerous driving.

"I can't think of the last time that I have seen a police car with a motorist pulled over on the side of the road that was not involved in something like an accident," Cummings says.

"But you should take the time to find out if there's facts to back it up," she says, so she requested traffic stops data from the city. The result: Traffic citations by police are down about 86%, compared to 2019.

"A lot of that is decisions made by the officer, based on staffing levels and based on call loads," says Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

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He says his department lost hundreds of officers after the George Floyd protests of 2020, and one thing he had to cut were dedicated traffic details. Patrol officers now spend upwards of 70% of their shifts responding to more urgent calls for service.

"Some of the officers don't feel like they have enough, adequate time to do the traffic enforcement," Diaz says.

Similar shortages are hampering police departments around the country.

But in some cases, the reduced traffic enforcement is also a matter of policy. High-profile deadly encounters during traffic stops, such as the 2021 shooting death of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., have put pressure on many police departments not to pull cars over for minor violations.

Susan Nembhard, a research associate with the Urban Institute, has written about the argument for limiting those stops.

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"For people of color and specifically black people, they can actually be one of the most dangerous interactions that they have," Nembhard says. "And that's from experiences of not only physical harm when something terrible happens — like a shooting or a murder or something like that — but also emotional harm and mental anxiety and stress."

Philadelphia, Minneapolisand even the state of Virginiahave adopted formal policies limiting strops for minor violations, sometimes called "pretextual stops," because they give police a justification to stop a car they find suspicious for other, less articulable reasons.

Seattle, too, has 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.

"There was a feeling that if there was a way to reduce these violations, that you would reduce potential disparities and stops, and you would also eliminate unnecessary contacts," says Chief Diaz.

As these new policies reduce "contacts" between police and citizens, some wonder if that has also reduced drivers' impression that they'll be stopped for more serious violations, such as running red lights.

"In a lot of places, we've shifted from one extreme to the other, where we have where there may have been cases of over-policing where we know people who are black and brown have been disproportionately stopped," Adkins says. "But perhaps we've gone too far on that other side."

At the same time, Adkins says 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.

"We really have to focus on safety. And if we make the case to the public that we have to focus on safety, that's a much easier selling point," Adkins says.

But privately, many police believe letting drivers get away with small violations does make traffic more dangerous. There's a theory in policing that what deters people from breaking the law is not the severity of the potential punishment, but the certainty of getting caught. That would explain why speeds go down around marked speed cameras. By the same token, if cops aren't pulling cars over for technical violations — say, expired license tabs or non-working taillights — drivers will start to think police aren't watching them at all.

It's a theory Jacob Denney doesn't buy. He's with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, a non-profit that's also been pushing to limit police stops for non-moving violations.

"I generally have never been convinced by the theory that individual officers on the road provokes the kind of surety of being caught that reduces kind of deviant or criminal behavior," Denney says. "Because even when you put a ton of resources into traffic enforcement and you have a lot of officers active and out on the scene, it's not enough to cover everywhere."

Back in Seattle, retired cop Carol Cummings acknowledges police can't be everywhere.

"That's true! But having done 37 years of of police work and having stopped an awful lot of reckless drivers, you may not stop them all, but you will have made an impact on the person that you've pulled over and you have either cited or warned," Cummings says.

She says what keeps her from driving dangerously is years of experience being called to crashes. Cummings think many other drivers are also like this — they follow the law because they know it makes sense.

"But there are a percentage of people that do not have that same philosophy, and if you don't have that enforcement, they're the ones that are out driving 55 miles per hour right about the time the school buses are coming by."

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Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.