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It’s Time to Improve Safety and Equity on California’s Roadways. Here's How.


By Chauncee Smith, Senior Manager of Reimagine Justice & Safety

All Californians deserve to live in communities with safe streets—roads where all people can move about freely without concern.  Our approach to achieving that vision should be equitable, people should be treated fairly regardless of their race, ethnicity, or other identity characteristics.  By relying on police traffic stops, we miss the mark on both fronts.   Traffic safety outcomes have grown worse and law enforcement disproportionately harms people of color through traffic stops.   

For example, between 2011 and 2020, the number of traffic fatalities in California increased by 37.6 percent, rising from 2,816 to 3,847.  As context, 3,800 deaths would be the equivalent of over nine Boeing 747 crashes in California, annually.  In addition, despite being no more likely to violate laws than White people, Black and Latinx Californians are disproportionately targeted—respectively accounting for 15 percent and 42 percent of traffic stops while only being 6 percent and 36 percent of the state population.  White people are underrepresented, accounting for 31 percent of people stopped and 35 percent of the population.  Perhaps even more troubling, these disparities result in devastating harms for communities of color.  This includes physical, mental, and emotional trauma, financial stress from ticket fees and fines, death, and dehumanization.     

Elected officials have spent massive amounts of public dollars on those outcomes.  From 1980 to 2016, state and local spending on law enforcement increased 227 percent ($5.8 billion to $18.9 billion).  In turn, staffing levels ballooned 54 percent (67,578 officers to 104,146 officers).  More recent figures show that California’s 58 counties and 482 cities annually spend over $25 billion on law enforcement—an amount that outweighs investments in public health and social services by a wide margin.  A significant amount of those dollars goes toward traffic patrol.  In 2019, the Los Angeles and Riverside Sheriff’s Departments spent approximately $981 and $308 million on deputy-initiated traffic stops, respectively.   

To improve safety and equity on roadways, we must think critically about what’s going on and whether we might benefit from alternatives to police and tickets.  Take Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black male, as an example.  Mid-afternoon, two police officers pulled Daunte over for an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror and outdated tags.  As the officers issued orders, Daunte got scared and failed to comply.  One officer callously responded by trying to tase Daunte but instead used their firearm and killed him.  Countless other people of color—such as Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Dijon Kizzie—have been subject to a similar fate.   

Imagine that, rather than police officers, there was an unarmed traffic safety public employee.  And, instead of trying to ticket or arrest Daunte, they showed compassion by ignoring the air freshener and trying to understand why his tags were outdated.  In doing so, they may have learned he was struggling to make ends meet or facing other challenges.  Perhaps they could have given him a voucher to cover his registration costs and a referral to free DMV assistance. 

Or, what if Daunte was never stopped?  Do objects hanging from rearview mirrors, outdated tags, or broken taillights really make us less safe?  How about speeding by five miles-per-hour?  Police have been stopping and ticketing drivers for minor traffic issues for decades, yet car crash fatalities continue to increase.  What if we replaced stops for minor violations with mailed warnings or citations?  Would that decrease harmful interactions with law enforcement while promoting safety?     

New Zealand had non-law enforcement workers manage traffic safety for decades.  This May, Philadelphia held an inauguration honoring 125 new unarmed public safety workers who will be responsible for roadway safety and other issues typically done by police.  This follows a growing trend of programs which acknowledge that, while a time-sensitive response to a situation may be necessary, police may not be required and, in some instances, altogether inappropriate.  Localities throughout the U.S. now have community responder initiatives that send social workers, behavioral health professionals, and violence interventionists to address relatively low safety risks, such as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and people who are unhoused.  Redelegating safety for minor traffic violations away from police is a reasonable next step.     

Last year, a national Safer Cities poll found that over 70 percent of likely voters think police officers are not the best response to relatively minor, non-safety related traffic violations. Similarly, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, an association that represents front-line law enforcement, proposed shifting officers away from 28 minor quality-of-life issues—including non-fatal car accidents.   

With traffic safety outcomes growing worse, and racial disparities in who police stop firmly entrenched, shifting officers away from non-safety related traffic violations makes sense.  Officers waste a ton of time stopping people for relatively harmless issues that pose little to no threat.   Reducing the number of issues officers take on would allow them to focus on things community members care about, like preventing violent crimes. 

In addition to rethinking what officers are responsible for, at least 60 localities across the U.S.—including Minneapolis, San Diego, Baton Rouge, and Long Island—have programs that replace tickets with repair vouchers to help low-income drivers avoid financial hardship, resolve perceived safety risks, and support local auto shops.  

It’s time to transform our approach by adopting policies that advance true safety.  This means both freedom from police violence and preventing avoidable traffic safety risks.  We should eliminate law enforcement responsibility for things they don’t need to do.   We don’t need a person with a gun to pull people over for vehicle equipment or administrative issues.  Rather than punitive tickets that drive low-income people into spiraling debt and fail to improve traffic safety outcomes, we should account for a person’s ability to pay.  We also need transportation infrastructure upgrades (e.g., more speed bumps, roundabouts, stop signs, and clear street markings) that prevent traffic violations and the need for enforcement.  Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A), a federal grant program, provides $5 billion to localities to pay for those improvements.  Investments should also be tailored to support communities that bear higher rates of police violence and vehicle collisions.  If these policies were implemented, Daunte Wright, and many other people of color, might be alive today. 

To learn more, see our series of reports on Reimagining Community Safety