Re-thinking the Role of Enforcement in Traffic Safety Work: City to City

by Jenn Fox | November 1, 2021 | in News, Webinars

On October 28, 2021, we explored steps Vision Zero cities are taking to question and re-envision the role of enforcement in traffic safety. We were joined by Marlon Marion, Equity and Inclusion Manager at the Portland Police Bureau; Clay Veka, of the Portland Bureau of Transportation; Juan Martinez, who works on transportation and infrastructure in New York; and Allison Schwartz, of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

We recognize that racialized enforcement – including discriminatory traffic stops and inequitable traffic fines and fees systems – is too often conducted in the name of “safe streets.” But it does not have to be this way. And we, as Vision Zero proponents, have a role and responsibility to be part of the change in the inequitable and harmful status quo.

We encourage you to listen to the 1-hour recording to hear the panelists’ points in full. We hope this will stimulate more discussion and action. And we invite you to also watch, or read about, the first discussion in this series, from September 2021. Below are important points and ideas for discussion and action from the October discussion.

 

Takeaways from our City-to-City discussion about re-thinking traffic enforcement:

➤ There’s growing concern around the country with the police using traffic stops as a “tool” in general crime-fighting work. As this recently published analysis shows, police officers are often trained to react with outsized aggression in traffic stops, with fatal consequences, especially for Black people in America. This is part of the reason many cities around the country (including SeattlePortland, BerkeleyMinneapolis, and others) are re-considering what behaviors should merit a traffic stop. And notably, Philadelphia, recently became the first large U.S. city to ban the use of so-called pretextual stops for low-level infractions, such as broken tail lights. This is an encouraging example of a Vision Zero city taking action to address a longtime injustice.

➤ Vision Zero practitioners should work with community partners and other government agencies to question where and whether punitive measures are actually improving driving – or biking or walking – behavior. Panelists described that the actual “evidence” of effectiveness in improving safe mobility is mixed, to say the least, and is worsening racial injustices. As we engage in these bigger questions of de-criminalizing non-dangerous behaviors and reforming standards for police stops, we should also be speeding up nearer-term changes, such as increasing the investments in safe road design to discourage unsafe behaviors, such as speeding.

➤ Where we can minimize – or even eliminate – the need for enforcement, we should, particularly by investing in safe built environments, policies and technology. This includes moving past the traditional “E’s” approach to traffic safety (Education, Enforcement, Engineering, etc.) to a Safe System approach that recognizes that not all E’s are created equal. We need to invest far more in equitable infrastructure, safe street designs and policies, not pretend that we can educate or enforce our way out of these deeply systemic problems. More on the Safe System approach that can help replace the need for enforcement with other upstream safety strategies can be found here and here

➤ Recognizing that the status quo will not change overnight, we can find other, non-police-initiated ways to deter dangerous behaviors on our streets, such as speeding and drunk driving.  Using automated speed cameras and requiring alcohol ignition interlocks for repeat drunk driving offenders are alternatives that lessen police-driver interaction while still focusing on high-danger behavior change. As panelists emphasized, we need to pay greater attention to inequities, including where speed cameras are located and re-structuring fines and fees. For instance, Portland and Seattle are actively exploring more equitable alternatives to the current traffic fine system which puts an excessive burden on some community members. 

➤ Vision Zero proponents need to work with partners, such as police departments, and acknowledge that change can be hard and won’t necessarily come overnight. As one panelist shared: “It’s important to recognize our shared humanity and be firm about our principles and our commitments to racial justice. Both of those need to go hand in hand in partnerships.” We need to “accept we have different views and approaches to the work, and we have to be willing to have hard conversations when we disagree. And to be compassionate but clear about the principles.”

➤ Panelists discussed the importance of transparency and accountability in traffic safety work, including law enforcement activities. One of Vision Zero’s strengths is its base in data-driven prioritizing and solutions. We should be expecting and closely examining enforcement data to understand what results from each enforcement strategy and who is being affected. As one panelist said: We need traffic enforcement to be about traffic safety, and that starts with what your police department is actually enforcing. Philadelphia City Council recently passed legislation requiring the city to collect and publish data on traffic stops, including information about the demographics of the drivers and their passengers, the stated reasons for conducting the traffic stops, the time and location of the stops, and the police actions taken during them.

➤ It is helpful to set clear guiding principles to help navigate this challenging work of changing the status quo. In Portland, the city’s Vision Zero work is based on the overarching question: Are we getting the outcomes we want in terms of both traffic safety and equity? This strategy helps partners embed equity into everyday work and decisionmaking.

➤ Panelists agreed that Vision Zero leaders and all of us working for safe mobility have the responsibility to actively engage on this issue. One panelist described that, as a Vision Zero Coordinator and a public servant in a city committed to ending institutional racism, it is part of our jobs to push on the problematic status quo, to ask critical questions, and to change business as usual, including continued use of traditional enforcement strategies.

➤ We need to stretch our thinking and be brave and inclusive in working for change. One panelist described Seattle’s Transportation Equity Workgroup and “radical imagination”, such as moving away from punitive practices toward restorative justice strategies. This includes better connecting the dots between transportation safety-related work and racial and economic justice.

➤ In communities where strong leadership is not yet being shown to question and change the status quo, there is still work that can be done now. We suggest starting by sharing these materials and others with those you work with and other potential partners to raise awareness and build a base for conversation and collaboration. Look around to identify community groups and other agencies centering racial justice; this may be a public health department or a local nonprofit group. These are all potential allies in starting to work for change.


We hope the ideas, questions, challenges, and opportunities discussed here can inspire and support others in their work of changing our broken systems to work for all community members. The goal of effective and equitable Vision Zero strategies is possible and necessary. 

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