by Leah Shahum March 2, 2021 in News, Webinars

Changing the Role of Policing in Traffic Safety: Berkeley Leads Early Progress

The Vision Zero Network is one of many organizations questioning the role of enforcement in the goal of traffic safety. Traffic stops are the most common way for people in the U.S. to interact with police. And Black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over and four-times as likely to be searched by police.

For too long, the injustices of the nation’s criminal justice system, including traffic stops that disproportionately harm Black people, other people of color, and low-income people, have been sustained under the guise of traffic safety. This needs to change. Read more about the Vision Zero Network’s approach to advancing equity in our work.

We are facilitating a peer exchange series questioning the role of enforcement in traffic safety work, engaging Vision Zero practitioners from across the country with the goal of developing and supporting alternatives to police-led, traditional strategies. And you can read our letter to the U.S. Congress questioning the inequitable enforcement efforts supported and funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and calling for changes.

Berkeley Takes Steps to Reform Enforcement in Traffic Safety

The community of Berkeley, California is leading the way in shifting police-led activities to new models to support racial justice in the city’s transportation safety work. Learn more in our conversation with Berkeley leaders on the February 25th webinar.

We spoke with Berkeley Vice Mayor and City Council member Lori Droste and Council member Rigel Robinson and Darrell Owens, co-Executive Director of East Bay for Everyone, about their recent groundbreaking work, including the City Council’s unanimous passage of a new policy that Berkeley police shall no longer stop drivers for minor traffic violations (ex: broken tail light, expired tag). Their traffic safety stops still allow focusing on violations endangering public safety (ex: excessive speeds, running red lights).

Our conversation with Councilmembers Droste & Robinson and Mr. Owens covered their emphasis on leading with proactive, “self-enforcing” street designs and policies that encourage safe behavior, rather than relying on after-the-fact, punitive enforcement that can lead to racial bias and violence. Read more background on Berkeley’s work here.

The policy changes passed in late February include the following (and more):

  • Police can no longer request parole or probation status when stopping someone.
  • Creates Early Intervention System to identify officers on a path of significant misconduct.
  • Terminates officers who publish racist content online.
  • Gives oversight responsibilities to an independent board.
  • Develop Specialized Care Unit to respond to mental health calls.
  • Creates BerkDOT, transferring traffic enforcement duties to trained civilians.
  • And creates the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force to continue work on critical police reform. 

See the details of Berkeley’s package of policy changes here.

A few issue areas we discussed that seem especially important and relevant today include:

  • Councilmember Droste’s reminder that many of us often talk about “public safety” in terms of traffic safety, or Vision Zero, but that’s only one aspect. Public safety means different things to different people, including amongst the BIPOC community. As an early Vision Zero champion in Berkeley, Droste has committed to make sure the issues are addressed as holistically as possible. The goal is to marry the issues in a positive way of addressing both traffic-related and police violence.
  • Owens raised great points reminding us that the country’s overall car-dominated policy is regressive. To meet the ambitious targets for safety set by Vision Zero policy, we must include strategies that encourage less driving, including better options for walking, biking, and taking transit.
  • Owens, (who shared his personal experience of getting pulled over by police while bicycling, noting that it’s not just Driving While Black that is a problem), pushed back on the assumption that more policing correlates to more safety on the roads, sidewalks, and bikeways. In fact, he says, the connection is not substantiated.
  • As Councilmember Robinson explained, Berkeley’s recent actions are only initial steps, but commitment and optimism are strong that these changes are a meaningful start to more substantive reform and results. And while city and community leaders in Berkeley, do not have all the answers, they recognized the responsibility to ask the questions and move toward change.  (And we thank Berkeley for their leadership!)
  • Robinson also emphasized the many stakeholders involved in this work, including strong advocates, especially Walk/Bike Berkeley and the Police Department and other city agency leaders. And the Taskforce continuing this work is made up of a mix of public agency representatives and community members.
  • The speakers looked ahead to areas for change, including addressing California State law to allow unarmed civilians to conduct traffic stops and to use automated speed enforcement (with a focus on equitable use); learning from pilot programs that could include unarmed police officers for some actions; developing strong organizational structures to implement and sustain change; and, of course, evaluating for improvements in disparities in traffic stops, traffic safety, and overall public safety.

The webinar ended with Councilmember Droste emphasizing that she’s proud of Berkeley’s willingness to pioneer change in many areas, including how traffic safety work can engage enforcement strategies thoughtfully and equitably. And while Berkeley may be known for having and implementing BIG ideas, there is good reason to expect more U.S. communities to be moving in this — or other new — positive directions to de-police the work of improving traffic safety.


Newsletter Sign Up

Fields with a * are required.

Related News

From Planning to Practice: The Role of Collaboration in Vision Zero Planning
In developing a Vision Zero Action Plan, the process can be just as important as the product. That’s because moving from commitment to action takes more than words, or even good ideas, written into a plan. Progress takes building buy-in for changing the status quo and developing strong relationships with key stakeholders who understand and …

From Planning to Practice: The Role of Collaboration in Vision Zero Planning Read More »

Now is the Time to Address Safety on State-owned Roads
Over the last five years, more than half of fatal crashes in urban areas occurred on roads managed by states, leaving local leaders with little authority to make safety changes. We see this disturbing trend in federal crash data [1], and many of you are likely experiencing it in your communities too.  As more communities …

Now is the Time to Address Safety on State-owned Roads Read More »

Where to Start on the Road to Vision Zero
Interest in Vision Zero is growing across the U.S. and the world. Many are wondering: “Where do we start?” While every community is different, there are some common first steps that we recommend. So, whether you are a mayor, a transportation planner or engineer, or a community advocate, we hope the following list of early …

Where to Start on the Road to Vision Zero Read More »

Scroll to Top