The blog of the Urban Institute
April 26, 2021

Police Traffic Stops Have Little to Do with Public Safety

April 26, 2021

The dangers of police traffic stops have been displayed time and again, from Rodney King in 1991 to Daunte Wright earlier this month. Traffic stops are the most common form of police-citizen interaction, but for many citizens, they are also the most dangerous.

Although many people view traffic enforcement as a basic aspect of policing, this has not always been the case. Considering the dangers of traffic stops and their disproportionate impact on Black people and other people of color, the traffic safety benefits do not outweigh the potential dangers.

How traffic enforcement evolved over time

Traffic enforcement has been a responsibility of policing since the invention and wide use of automobiles and other vehicles. Cars were seen as dangerous, and originally, there were no rules or regulations governing their use. Outraged over accidents and other safety concerns, civilians demanded public safety support, despite law enforcement’s own lack of automobile use.

Traffic enforcement started in the 1920s with “traffic vigilantes” who regulated driving by handing out tickets, keeping track of license plates, and following high-speed drivers. As police gained access to more technology, this role increasingly fell to them. Since then, police have used traffic stops to stop, detain, and search people (PDF) they believe are engaging in criminal activity. 

Traffic stops are now one of the most common acts of policing. Officers engaged in traffic enforcement have the discretion to decide whether to stop a driver based on a long list of potential violations, including not using a turn signal early enough, not using headlights on a cloudy day, or having a loud exhaust. Officers have further discretion in how the stop is handled, including whether they will conduct a search of vehicle, issue a citation, arrest the driver, or let them go.

Whether an officer can initiate a search after a stop has sparked debate on drivers’ civil liberties and guarantees under the Fourth Amendment, but the Supreme Court has upheld officers’ ability to conduct vehicular searches and pretextual stops. Pretextual stops allow officers to pull over drivers for minor traffic violations as a pretext for investigating other criminal activity. Because of the large amount of officer discretion involved, these stops have been particularly susceptible to biased policing, resulting in disproportionate harms to Black people and other people of color

Traffic stops increase harm and trauma

Research on police traffic stops has consistently found widespread racial disparities, with Black drivers more likely than white drivers to be pulled over in cities across the country. These disparities are amplified when considering vehicle search rates; Black and Latine drivers are significantly more likely to be searched than white drivers. In North Carolina, Black drivers were 63 percent more likely to be pulled over and 115 percent more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white drivers, despite finding that contraband was more likely to be found on white drivers.

Although the vast majority of traffic stops and searches do not result in an arrest, the highly racialized nature of these interactions erodes community trust in the police. Further, police stops of innocent people exact a psychological toll, particularly for Black Americans, who continue to experience collective trauma from police violence. Black people are murdered by police at more than twice the rate of white people, despite comprising 13 percent of the US population.

Laws prohibiting innocuous activities, such as having air fresheners or other objects hanging from a rearview mirror, allow police an essentially unchecked ability to initiate traffic stops. Additionally, policymakers and activists have pointed to substantial racial disparities in marijuana enforcement during pretextual stops. Researchers found that in two states where marijuana has recently been legalized, searches for Black, Latine, and White drivers all decreased. However, racial disparities in traffic stops persisted, despite removing marijuana as a reason to search a car.

The deeply entrenched racial disparities in traffic enforcement and the continued killing of Black drivers show that regardless of intentions, the harms of traffic stops far outweigh any potential public safety benefits. Traffic stops result in neither increased trust in the police nor increased perceptions of safety among community members, and they often have the opposite effect. In some cases, traffic stops can lead to decreases in motor vehicle crashes and fatalities. But they should not lead to life-threatening interactions.

Where do we go from here?

Policymakers have explored ways to reduce the frequency of stops and inform people of their rights. One such reform that has been found to reduce search rates and crime rates mandates that officers obtain written consent to search vehicles when lacking probable cause. Following the implementation of this reform in two North Carolina cities, consent searches dropped by 95 percent.

To limit police officers’ ability to use pretextual stops to justify searches, policymakers have proposed deprioritizing low-level traffic offenses, such as not wearing a seatbelt or having an expired vehicle registration. By reducing the number of opportunities to pull people over, this approach aims to minimize dangerous police-driver interactions and racial disparities in police exercising their discretion in stops.

Some advocates and researchers have suggested removing police officers from traffic enforcement altogether, arguing the only way to eliminate risks and reduce Black trauma in traffic stops is to shift routine traffic responsibilities away from the police. Automating traffic enforcement via speed cameras or red light cameras is one option. But policymakers should be conscious of the implications of such policies, given the country’s racist history of surveilling Black communities.

To address this concern, some advocates have pushed for the adoption of inclusive community engagement strategies, through which community members determine their own public safety solutions. To effectively address police violence and the legacy of anti-Black racism, policymakers could remove officers from traffic enforcement activities, listen to the people most harmed by traffic stops, and shift the power to community members to define and address their public safety concerns.


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(Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images)

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