Center for American Progress

4 Ways the Department of Transportation Can Combat Racially Biased Police Traffic Enforcement

4 Ways the Department of Transportation Can Combat Racially Biased Police Traffic Enforcement

The U.S. Department of Transportation has an opportunity to take swift and concrete steps to improve the physical and psychological safety of Black drivers on the nation’s roadways.

Pete Buttigieg
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks in the Brady Briefing Room during the daily White House briefing on May 12, 2021, in Washington. (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

For more than a century, policing has been seen as the solution to many social problems in the United States, from traffic violations to mental health crises to disputes between neighbors. While the justification for overpolicing is that it combats crime, in reality, the practice distracts police from the job of investigating serious crime—and the human toll is unconscionably high. Despite public perceptions, law enforcement actually spends very little time affirmatively fighting crime and focuses much more on minor incidents such as traffic infractions. In fact, research finds that police make roughly 20 million stops annually, despite evidence that traffic enforcement is not an effective means of fighting crime.

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Traffic stops are one of the most common ways police encounter the public. One statewide study found that nearly half of traffic stops were for minor technical infractions that had little to do with traffic safety—such as a broken taillight or having an object hanging from the rearview mirror—rather than hazardous and aggressive driving behavior such as speeding, driving under the influence, or dangerous driving. Notably, Black motorists are stopped more often, relative to their share of the population, than white drivers, especially for low-level infractions. During a traffic stop, Black drivers are also more likely to be searched and less likely than white drivers to be found in possession of illegal items such as drugs or weapons.

Research has repeatedly shown that police rarely uncover illegal items in searches. Yet too often, these traffic stops have harmful or deadly consequences. For example, on January 7, 2023, a specialized unit within the Memphis Police Department known as the “SCORPION Unit” fatally beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a routine traffic stop. His name now joins a somber list etched in the national memory, marking the lives lost in tragic—and often preventable—encounters with law enforcement during a traffic stop. In recent years, Philando Castile in Minnesota, Samuel DuBose in Ohio, Daunte Wright in Minnesota, and Walter Scott in South Carolina all have shared the heartbreaking yet common experience of being stopped by police and never making it home.

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There is growing momentum in states and localities across the country to enact new policies and laws that restrict police from making traffic stops for minor infractions and to adopt policies that instruct police to prioritize their resources for serious traffic safety violations. National polling conducted by Data For Progress in February 2023 found that voters across the political spectrum support restricting police enforcement of “low-level traffic infractions.” A majority of voters also believe that police traffic stops “are not the right response” for minor violations such as a cracked windshield or a broken taillight. Where implemented, these innovations are showing success. A landmark study showed that a policy directive from a local police chief to deprioritize nonsafety-related stops improved road safety and reduced racial disparity with no associated impact on nontraffic crime.

The federal government, and in particular the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), must do its part to incentivize these effective traffic enforcement reforms at the state and local levels; examine the role that administrative policies, programs, and funding play in reinforcing the harmful status quo; and take concrete steps to use its regulatory and funding capacities to put alternatives to police traffic enforcement at the center of future traffic safety efforts.

Police make roughly 20 million stops annually, despite evidence that traffic enforcement is not an effective means of fighting crime. Open Policing Project, "Findings"; NYU School of Law Policing Project, "Reevaluating Traffic Stops in Nashville."

The authors are confident that the commitment to solutions is present, but U.S. communities need action. This column calls on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and DOT to turn those commitments into actions by: 1) enhancing performance measurement and data collection pursuant to formula grants; 2) leveraging discretionary grants to support state and local innovation; 3) bridging the research gap; and 4) engaging directly affected communities and uplifting innovations to amplify successes.

The role of DOT in advancing alternatives to police enforcement of minor traffic infractions

While policing is local, some decisions that drive how policing occurs are not. DOT plays a significant role in how police conduct themselves in the enforcement of traffic safety laws. Current DOT policy contributes to both the endangerment and direct harm of Black drivers on the nation’s roads through its acceptance of racial profiling and overpolicing in traffic enforcement under the guise of “roadway safety.” After decades of conflating crime fighting with traffic safety, police traffic enforcement is often practiced without factoring in crash locations and other traffic safety needs.

Current DOT policy contributes to both the endangerment and direct harm of Black drivers on the nation’s roads through its acceptance of racial profiling and overpolicing.

As the authoritative agency on transportation safety, DOT can influence the culture and shift incentives for the transportation industry—whether through its convening authority or its extensive relations with professional industry associations. DOT also can fund research into how to effectively replace inequitable and harmful traffic enforcement efforts with approaches that achieve both roadway safety and the physical and psychological safety of Black drivers and other drivers of color.

By addressing police traffic enforcement head on, DOT has an opportunity to simultaneously improve safety for all drivers through its Safe System Approach and live up to its historic commitments to advance racial equity.

DOT’s ‘Safe System Approach’

In recent years, DOT has adopted a “Safe System Approach” to road safety, which emphasizes using diverse interventions to prevent and reduce the harms caused by traffic crashes. According to DOT, a central tenet of a Safe System Approach is, “Roadway design strongly influences how people use roadways.” This simple statement contains an uncomfortable but vital truth about the U.S. transportation system: The nation’s roadways and highways facilitate dangerous driver behaviors that lead to unacceptable numbers of serious injuries and fatalities every year on a small fraction of roadway locations.

The Safe System Approach has been successfully implemented by cities and countries around the world. A central benefit of better transportation system design is that it does not rely only on reactive police enforcement strategies, which make roads and highways intimidating and unsafe for Black drivers. These enforcement strategies also are costly, are time consuming, and do not have the ability to prevent dangerous driving at all times. Instead, a Safe System Approach, anchored by new roadway design standards that reduce vehicle speeds and safely accommodate all system users, could break with the untenable status quo around enforcement by eliminating design features that enable the most dangerous driver behavior in the first place. Many important design features, including setting safe speed limits, ensuring adequate signage, or restricting lane usage, can be rolled out quickly and inexpensively, while more long-term redesign work is ongoing. Yet it’s also vital to recognize that changes to design cannot completely resolve the disparities and danger surrounding police enforcement, especially of minor traffic infractions.

The Biden administration’s commitment to racial equity

Since the first day of his administration, President Joe Biden has made a commitment to advancing a “whole-of-government equity agenda” and, through two executive orders, has created a framework for federal agencies to establish and implement racial equity action plans. DOT has taken up the mantle by establishing its own Equity Action Plan, centered around the goals of wealth creation, power of community, proactive intervention, planning and capacity building, expanding access, and institutionalizing equity. While these pillars are broad in concept, nowhere does the action plan specifically reference equity goals related to police traffic enforcement—or even enforcement more generally. This glaring omission calls into question the level of priority and intentionality being dedicated to addressing this critical issue, which affects the safety of Black drivers and other drivers of color. DOT should include more explicit equity goals related to reducing racially biased police traffic enforcement of minor violations.

While DOT does not bear sole responsibility for ending racial bias in police traffic enforcement, it has unique leverage as a driver of federal policy that can shift incentives for state and local decision-makers about traffic enforcement practices using the hundreds of millions of dollars in highway safety grants it provides to states. Although the opportunities for innovation in both education and enforcement exist, DOT continues to support policing approaches such as high-profile traffic crackdowns and invest millions of dollars in advertising those programs. DOT must build on the historic infrastructure investments this administration has already made through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and other avenues, as well as assess the roles that its programs, policies, and funding play in perpetuating pretextual traffic enforcement; make changes to divest from harmful practices; and seed state and local innovation in traffic safety. DOT should use its authority to champion a nationwide shift in traffic safety at this crucial time.

Despite recent actions to replace a harmful federal traffic safety program that incentivized racially biased pretextual traffic stops, more needs to be done

In February 2024, DOT announced that it will replace the controversial Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) program with a new model to improve traffic safety outcomes for all communities.* DDACTS promotes the use of traffic stops for minor infractions as a crime-fighting tool and encourages the concentration of police traffic stops in “high crime” locations. This program and others like it incentivize harmful pretextual traffic stops, a practice that has proved to be racially biased, increase danger to Black motorists, and be ineffective at fighting serious crime.

DOT was right to end this program and seek to replace it with something new, evidence based, and grounded in community expertise. This action demonstrates that the department has listened to the sustained and focused advocacy efforts of recent years calling for a new approach to traffic enforcement. Going forward, it is imperative that there be robust public engagement in developing the replacement for DDACTS to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. DOT should also provide guidance to states that wish to use data to increase public and roadway safety. This guidance should include ways to evaluate racial bias and disparate impacts of any enforcement efforts.

The decision to end DDACTS is long overdue and a step in the right direction. However, there is much more that can and needs to be done to build on this momentum and make good on DOT’s commitment to traffic safety and equity.

4 ways that DOT can curtail racially unjust police traffic enforcement and improve the physical and psychological safety of Black drivers

The ensuing recommendations represent policy proposals aimed at enhancing roadway safety, minimizing harm, and promoting fairness for Black drivers and other drivers of color. These actions align with both the Safe System Approach and DOT’s historic commitment to equity shared by the Biden administration—evidence that roadway safety and racial justice go hand in hand.

1. Enhance performance measurement and data collection pursuant to formula grants

Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway safety funding to states on the condition that they submit State Highway Safety (SHS) Plans for DOT approval. Currently, DOT’s data collection on traffic enforcement focuses on total numbers of traffic stops and citations, but these data are inadequate to determine whether enforcement plans are effective, adequate, or equitable. As a condition of its formula grants, DOT should require the collection of robust traffic safety and enforcement data to support appropriate evaluation of SHS and ensure equitable outcomes, as well as make those data available to the public. Research has shown that harmful racial inequities pervade traffic enforcement across the United States. Creative solutions, however, have been blocked in many places due to severe limitations in data.

Expanding SHS activity measures to include more data about traffic enforcement activity would empower states to identify the kinds of stops most associated with racial inequities, understand the extent to which stops of Black drivers and other drivers of color lead to more intrusive outcomes such as searches or uses of force, and examine how to safely minimize these outcomes. Important data points to collect include demographics (such as race, age, and gender) and incident-level characteristics of stops (such as time, location, originating reason, and law enforcement action taken). Searches, uses of force, detentions outside cars, and other law enforcement actions should be collected. Regular audits of data quality should also be required. Importantly, expanded data collection would allow DOT to ensure that funds are not contributing to discriminatory and ineffective traffic enforcement activity and to support the identification of best practices.

In addition, DOT should establish national standards for how law enforcement agencies should collect and report data on traffic stops, making the reported data publicly available through a national database. DOT should also devote resources to enhance law enforcement record management systems to facilitate the collection of data meeting these standards. DOT could also address technical barriers to data collection by encouraging and working with vendors of record management systems to integrate national data standards into industry standard practice and to add flexibility features that support ongoing modifications to data collection as needed.

While states are the only eligible grantees of highway safety funds, they can subgrant other entities, including law enforcement agencies. DOT should require that states regularly report which law enforcement agencies receive money directly and indirectly, how much money they receive and for what purpose, and the outcomes of those enforcement activities. Once the scope of this funding is understood and shared publicly, DOT should explore all its options for limiting the use of discretionary grant funds for police enforcement of minor traffic infractions.

Furthermore, DOT should fully leverage the funding opportunities available to states through the Section 1906 Grant Program to curtail racial profiling in traffic enforcement. The explicit purpose of this grant program is to support states in the collection and maintenance of traffic stop data, conduct evaluations based on that data, and develop and implement programs to reduce racial profiling. To date, funding available under the 1906 Program has not been maximally utilized. DOT should proactively encourage states to apply for this funding to support data collection projects, safe alternatives to police traffic enforcement, and technical assistance to support those efforts. For example, funding under the program was instrumental in supporting Connecticut’s innovative program that uses data collaboratively to resolve racial disparities in traffic enforcement. DOT should encourage the use of Section 1906 funds to support expansion of this approach to other states.

2. Leverage discretionary grants to support state and local innovation

DOT should fully leverage discretionary funding, particularly through the Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) program and the University Transportation Center (UTC) program, to support state and local innovations that reduce police involvement in enforcement of minor traffic infractions and promote safe alternatives to police traffic enforcement. Through its discretionary grants, DOT should invest in infrastructure improvements that can prevent crashes before they happen and uplift promising traffic programs such as Lights On! as well as traffic enforcement data dashboards such as the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project. DOT should also explicitly outline in its Notices of Funding Opportunity when discretionary grant resources can be used to support alternatives to police traffic enforcement.

3. Bridge the research gap

DOT should increase support for national research that can bridge the gap between existing studies and emerging approaches that focus on both transportation and public safety. To guide the development of state and local innovations, it should support research in three key areas.

DOT should conduct research that identifies the most effective ways for police traffic enforcement efforts to curtail dangerous driving, specifically safety-related moving violations with the greatest role in traffic deaths and serious injuries (such as speeding, reckless driving, distracted driving, and driving while intoxicated). The evidence is mixed on whether current enforcement efforts are effective, and their impacts are often geographically contained and of limited duration. Research should focus on understanding how to implement strategies that maximize roadway safety and minimize harm.

As jurisdictions seek alternatives to police traffic enforcement, the utilization of automated traffic enforcement (ATE) is growing rapidly and poses a significant threat to economic and racial equity. Last year, DOT published a strong “Speed Safety Camera Program Planning and Operations Guide” to help state and local governments navigate the implementation process. It should further support robust research on the impacts of ATE techniques such as speed cameras and red-light cameras. Currently, research does not support red-light cameras as an effective safety measure, while research on speed cameras suggests that they may be effective when integrated into a Safe System Approach.

Additional research is needed to develop guidelines for equitable placement of cameras without reinforcing the racial disparities embedded in geographic patterns of traffic safety, curtail the imposition of excessive fines and fees, anddevelop methods to mitigate the perverse incentives of overenforcement to generate public and private revenue. DOT should also evaluate the effectiveness of oversight boards and establish best practices on how to meaningfully engage communities in the design and implementation of ATE programs, where feasible.

DOT should fund research into the impacts of the innovative policies at the state and local levels that have blossomed in recent years. These policies often take the form of internal law enforcement policies that direct officers to shift their focus away from minor infractions and toward safety-related violations such as speeding, distracted driving, and other dangerous activities. An increasing number of cities and states (including New York, California, Virginia, and Illinois) have also passed ordinances listing minor infractions that police may no longer use as the sole basis for a stop. Preliminary results have been promising, and localized research is emerging, but additional high-quality and cross-jurisdictional research is still needed.

Research support should be provided to jurisdictions seeking to pilot civilian traffic enforcement units. Furthermore, many local traffic safety efforts have proved successful without relying on cameras or other punitive measures, and those methods should be studied for replication. DOT should also support research into jurisdictions that have achieved lengthy periods without traffic fatalities through notice programs such as driver speed feedback signs, education campaigns, and traffic warnings.

4. Engage directly affected communities and uplift innovations to amplify successes

DOT should increase its engagement with those directly affected by current traffic enforcement practices. Organizations and advocates nationwide have long sought solutions to address overpolicing, excessive pretextual stops, and intense enforcement of nonsafety-related issues. Community members have organized brake-light clinics to help neighbors avoid unnecessary interactions with law enforcement. They have also urged lawmakers to explore innovative alternatives to traditional traffic enforcement, advocated for data collection during traffic stops, and pursued various other measures to avoid the real-life impacts of traffic stops. A grassroots approach is essential to understanding what road safety means to marginalized communities.

Secretary Buttigieg and other DOT leaders are critical messengers for combating racial injustice in police traffic enforcement in furtherance of holistic traffic safety. In their efforts to call attention to what it takes to keep people safe on U.S. roads, DOT should publicly recognize the harms of police enforcement on the physical and psychological safety of Black drivers. DOT should also take every opportunity to uplift state and local innovators and innovations that are having positive impacts in communities across the country. This can be accomplished through webinars, convenings, social media posts, public statements, Notices of Funding Opportunities, and written guidance or reports.

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The United States cannot wait until the next tragedy to take action on these concrete steps forward. To honor Tyre Nichols and so many others who have been surveilled, harassed, and, too often, killed while doing something as simple as driving while Black, DOT must take swift, public action to consider and adopt policies that advance safety and equity on the nation’s roadways.

This column was produced as part of an ongoing partnership between the Center for American Progress, Color Of Change, and the Vera Institute of Justice. The authors would like to thank Scarlet Neath, policy director at the Center for Policing Equity, and Priya Sarathy Jones, deputy executive director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, for their review and contributions.

The authors would also like to acknowledge their colleagues who supported the research and development of this article. They include Allie Preston, Kevin DeGood, and Anuja Gore from the Center for American Progress; Portia Allen-Kyle and Michael Huggins from Color Of Change; and Daniela Gilbert, Marta Nelson, Sam Raim, and Nicholas MacDonald from the Vera Institute of Justice.

* Letter containing this announcement is on file with the authors.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Rachael Eisenberg

Managing Director, Rights and Justice

Center For American Progress

Daniel Bodah

Senior Program Associate, Vera Institute of Justice

Brandon Tucker

Senior Director of Policy and Government Affairs, Color Of Change


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