Traffic stops are the most common way the public encounters police in our society, with more than 20 million stops per year nationwide. For too long, promoting traffic safety has focused heavily on police enforcement of a range of traffic violations, from those that have serious roadway safety implications, such as speeding and reckless driving, to minor violations, such as a broken taillight or an item hanging from the rearview mirror.
Rather than serving a legitimate traffic safety purpose, police enforcement of minor violations is often used as a pretext for investigating non-traffic-related crime. This practice is rife with racial profiling, has little effect on serious crime, and, too often, escalates to violent injury or death at the hands of police. In particular, Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police for an alleged traffic violation, more likely to be searched during the course of that stop, and less likely to possess contraband when searched. Alarmingly, Black people are also twice as likely as white people to be killed by police in the course of a traffic stop.
Current police traffic enforcement practices also distract from the real and urgent need to prevent traffic crashes and curtail dangerous driving, with traffic fatalities reaching historic highs in 2021 and remaining high in 2022. It is critical for localities to rethink their approach to traffic safety, moving away from police enforcement of minor violations and toward interventions that address speeding and other structural factors that make crashes more likely and more fatal. These innovations would ensure the physical and psychological safety of all drivers on our nation’s roadways, but especially Black drivers, who bear the brunt of violent traffic enforcement.
Currently, communities with large proportions of Black residents are more likely to have unsafe roads and experience higher rates of car crashes as a result of those driving conditions. Black people are also more likely than white people to be killed by drivers while walking, and people in low-income communities are three times more likely than those in high-income areas to be killed by drivers while walking. Concentrating police enforcement resources in communities with high rates of car crashes alone is not sufficient to address the underlying causes of unsafe driving and simply perpetuates unjust policing practices that result in the oversurveillance and profiling of Black people.
It is critical for localities to rethink their approach to traffic safety, moving away from police enforcement of minor violations and toward interventions that address speeding and other structural factors that make crashes more likely and more fatal.
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has adopted a “Safe System Approach” to road safety, which emphasizes using diverse interventions to both prevent and reduce the harm of traffic crashes. This approach has been embraced by transportation systems in cities and countries across the world. Rather than relying only on reactive enforcement strategies, the Safe System Approach is proactive and focuses on preventing crashes before they happen, creating safer roads and vehicles, setting safe speed limits, and improving crash response. It recognizes that people make mistakes and anticipates these mistakes by designing and managing roads, vehicles, and policies in ways that lessen the severity of these inevitable mistakes. So, when a mistake does occur that causes a crash, it is less likely to result in a severe injury or death. This approach offers promise in making safer roads for all; but it is inconsistent with the status quo of police traffic enforcement, which makes roads and highways intimidating and unsafe for Black drivers.
Fortunately, thanks to the historic federal investments championed by the Biden administration through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, local jurisdictions are already making real and lasting changes to increase traffic safety. In particular, the Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant program provides $5 billion in resources over five years to support regional, local, and Tribal initiatives to prevent roadway deaths and serious injuries. These grants are a timely and potentially transformational opportunity for localities to invest in innovative programs that change the way we think about traffic enforcement.
What is Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A)?
SS4A is a competitive, discretionary grant program from DOT that was first authorized in 2022. The main goals of SS4A are to strengthen local approaches to roadway safety and reduce or eliminate roadway fatalities and serious injuries. The program provides funding to support localities as they develop innovative approaches to equitable traffic safety, such as implementing the Proven Safety Countermeasures initiative, a set of 28 strategies to reduce roadway fatalities and serious injuries.
This funding can serve as a catalyst for communities to develop alternatives to police traffic enforcement of minor violations and promote innovative practices that create road safety for all drivers. Specifically, funding under SSFA is used to support the development of “tools to help strengthen a community’s approach to roadway safety and save lives.”
Under SS4A, localities can apply for either a Planning and Demonstration Grant or an Implementation Grant:
- Planning and Demonstration Grants are used to “develop, complete, or supplement a comprehensive safety action plan, as well as carry out demonstration activities.” The three types of activities covered by Planning and Demonstration Grants include: 1) developing an action plan; 2) enhancing an action plan through supplemental safety planning; and 3) carrying out demonstration projects. These grants can be helpful in identifying geographic locations where innovative safety efforts may be the most needed, assessing equity issues, engaging community partners in the planning of interventions, and supporting the creation of pilot programs to address traffic safety and enforcement issues in key areas. DOT has been explicit in its desire to support programs that center equity by including equity considerations as a component of the action plan and suggesting enforcement programs that center equity, such as restorative justice programs.
- Implementation Grants provide funding to allow localities to implement “strategies” identified in the action plan that address road safety problems. These grants can be combined with requests for supplemental planning or demonstration activities. Applicants for an Implementation Grant must already have an existing plan that meets the action plan requirements of this solicitation. Once jurisdictions have an action plan, Implementation Grants can play a critical role in bringing to life innovations that will promote road safety while reducing reliance on police traffic enforcement.
Who is eligible to apply for SS4A?
Notably, funding from the SS4A program is directed to localities, whereas other large federal grant opportunities are directed toward states. Specifically, SS4A applicants can be a metropolitan planning organization, a political subdivision of a state or territory, a federally recognized Tribal government, or a multijurisdictional group of entities described in any of the aforementioned three types of entities. While states are not eligible applicants, DOT encourages applicants to coordinate their activities with the state where possible.
Implementation Grant applicants have additional eligibility requirements described in the SS4A notice of funding opportunity.
How much funding is available to localities under SS4A?
SS4A provides $5 billion in resources over five years to support regional, local, and Tribal initiatives in preventing roadway deaths and serious injuries. In 2022, the first year of SS4A, DOT awarded $800 million in SS4A funding to more than 500 communities. And in 2023, more than $1 billion additional dollars will be made available to support these grants.
SS4A provides $5 billion in resources over five years to support regional, local, and Tribal initiatives in preventing roadway deaths and serious injuries.
For Planning and Demonstration Grants, the expected minimum award is $100,000, and the maximum award is $10 million. Meanwhile, the expected minimum award for an Implementation Grant is $2.5 million, and the maximum award is $25 million. SS4A funding cannot exceed 80 percent of the proposal funding, meaning that applicants are responsible for providing additional nonfederal funding for at least 20 percent of the proposed activities.
What is the deadline for applying to SS4A?
Applications for 2023 must be submitted by 5:00 p.m. EST on Monday, July 10, 2023. Those who are unable to make the deadline for 2023 can begin planning for the 2024 deadline. Any funds not awarded this year will likely roll over to the next round of funding in 2024.
DOT expects to have two rounds of awards this year. The first round, which is expected to be announced in October 2023, will only make awards for Planning and Demonstration Grants. The second round of awards, anticipated to take place in December 2023, will provide both Implementation and Planning and Demonstration Grants.
How can SS4A support innovative programs to limit police traffic enforcement of minor violations and promote traffic safety?
While not expressly mentioned in the example projects described by DOT, SS4A can be used to support a variety of efforts to rethink the scope and focus of police in traffic enforcement and seed innovative approaches that increase the physical and psychological safety of Black drivers and others on the road.
All of these interventions support the SS4A goals of improving approaches to road safety and reducing crash fatality and serious injury.
What traffic enforcement innovations have been made at the state and local level?
In response to the rampant racial profiling and harm that too often results from police traffic enforcement, states and localities are implementing innovative reforms to change the way they approach traffic enforcement.
State and local innovations in traffic enforcement
Jurisdictions have enacted or advanced laws and ordinances that restrict the use of traffic stops for certain low-level violations that do not endanger roadway safety:
Jurisdictions have implemented or are in the process of implementing policies that instruct officers to prioritize police resources for infractions that pose an immediate threat to traffic safety above other stops categorized as minor violations:
In some jurisdictions, prosecutors have established a policy to decline cases based on evidence obtained during a non-safety or pretextual stop:
Jurisdictions have also developed programs that employ unarmed civilian responders to handle traffic incidents:
- Jurisdictions are leveraging civilian professionals within the police departments to investigate crashes and are creating civilian units to issue nonmoving traffic violations:
- While no jurisdiction has successfully created a separate civilian traffic response unit to handle traffic enforcement, the approach is being explored in many places:
- Berkeley, California
- Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Jurisdictions are turning to automated enforcement such as speed safety cameras as a short-term strategy to address speed problems, although they can also be used to explore alternatives to traffic stops and reduce reliance on armed law enforcement. When implemented, there are important guardrails that are needed to make sure such enforcement is equitable. For instance, to further equity in reform efforts across the country, DOT created a “Speed Safety Camera Program Planning and Operations Guide” that helps jurisdictions ensure that speed camera programs are implemented without perpetuating racial or economic disparities. In addition, some places have created oversight boards, transferred operations to nonpolice agencies, and banned methods likely to create inequitable enforcement:
Jurisdictions that have implemented these innovative approaches have experienced improvements in both safety and equity. For example, after Fayetteville, North Carolina, reprioritized its stops to emphasize traffic safety, safety-focused stops increased from 30 percent to 80 percent of all stops; traffic fatalities dropped 28 percent; total crashes dropped 13 percent; index crimes dropped 10 percent; and violent crime remained unchanged, demonstrating the positive impact of reform on both traffic safety and crime. Similarly, the year after the New Haven, Connecticut, police chief reprioritized enforcement resources to focus on dangerous driving, equipment and administrative offenses were reduced by 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively, while crash rates dropped by 10 percent and crime rates dropped by 5 percent.
After Fayetteville, North Carolina, reprioritized its stops to emphasize traffic safety, safety-focused stops increased from 30 percent to 80 percent of all stops [and] traffic fatalities dropped 28 percent.
Traffic enforcement reform can also play a role in reducing racial profiling and racial disparities in traffic stops while maintaining traffic safety. For instance, Fayetteville’s intervention to prioritize traffic stops resulted in a 21 percent drop in racial disparities. Conversely, in Washington state, police stops of Black drivers saw a statistically significant increase, compared with those of white drivers, after a 2012 change in state constitutional law permitted police to conduct pretextual traffic stops.
The current moment calls for new approaches to traffic safety, rather than relying on a status quo of police enforcement that perpetuates racial profiling and threatens the safety and lives of Black drivers. While it is not the sole responsibility of transportation systems to address police practices, investing in alternative enforcement and nonenforcement mechanisms can ensure that transportation systems will not play a role in perpetuating these injustices. Furthermore, local efforts currently underway and supported by SS4A to improve overall traffic safety infrastructure are critical to prevent the need for enforcement in the first place.
The current moment calls for new approaches to traffic safety, rather than relying on a status quo of police enforcement that perpetuates racial profiling and threatens the safety and lives of Black drivers.
As jurisdictions seek to apply for federal funding from the SS4A program and implement efforts to increase roadway safety, they should incorporate reforms that limit police stops for minor violations and seed innovative approaches that achieve roadway safety. In doing so, they must also prioritize the physical and psychological safety of Black drivers following decades of racially biased traffic enforcement in the United States.
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 author would like to thank Scarlet Neath of the Center for Policing Equity for providing research used in this publication as well as Vision Zero Network for its review.