It’s such a common experience, most of us think little of it until it happens to us. The blue lights start flashing in the rear-view mirror. Two cars sit on the side of the road for a few minutes, and then one drives off, minor traffic citation in hand. At least, that’s how a traffic stop normally goes.
But does it really make any sense? A growing reform movement is pushing for a seemingly radical idea: it’s time to abolish the traditional traffic stop altogether. They have a strong argument that these “routine” stops are dangerous, intrusive, stressful, and that the harms far outweigh any dubious public safety benefit.
The public safety argument against traffic stops
After all, isn’t this what cars have license plates for? At a glance, any officer can easily identify the legally registered owner of a vehicle, and mail them the citation for rolling through that stop sign or failing to use their blinker.
Traffic stops aren’t just bad for those on the receiving end: they needlessly put officers at risk, both from hostile interactions and, more often, from the traffic whizzing past at highway speeds. In the past decade, 127 American law enforcement officers were killed by being struck by a vehicle according to the Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, the vast majority of them roadside accidents during routine traffic stops.
When you think about it, traffic stops really don’t make much sense. Our response to minor violations of the rules of the road, is to obstruct traffic with flashing blue strobe lights, while a man with a gun confronts the driver while both cars are parked, often on a highway shoulder where both parking and pedestrians are normally, and quite reasonably, prohibited.
There are still situations wherein police need to pull over a suspect
That’s not to say that blue lights are going away any time soon. Some situations do justify immediate intervention, not just a notice mailed to the offender’s home. A person driving dangerously must be stopped immediately, before they harm someone.
A drunk swerving across lanes shouldn’t be left to go on their way. It’s also reasonable for police to use the tactic when they have identified a suspect in a manhunt, or have reasonable cause to believe there is an outstanding arrest warrant for a driver. A car with invalid or stolen plates, also precludes mail-based enforcement.
But there’s nothing urgent about that trifling ticket for going 75 in 65 mph zone. Nor is it unreasonable that the ticket goes to the car’s owner without any effort to identify the driver. If you lend your car to an irresponsible leadfoot, it’s your problem to recoup the fines and fees they accumulate.
Traffic stops are often about more than just traffic enforcement
Unfortunately, rarely are traffic stops really about traffic enforcement. More often, they’re fishing expeditions to justify a search, in hopes of finding illicit contraband like drugs. Sometimes, even simple cash will be stolen under asset seizure laws, even though there’s nothing illegal about it.
Racial disparities in who gets pulled over are also real, and notorious for good reason. The whole experience, even when not discriminatory, causes tension and ruins any hope of a positive police-community relationship. For the average law-abiding citizen, it turns a police car into a cause of anxiety, not the reassuring presence it should be. For police officers, it needlessly puts them at risk of being shot or run over.
We already have an agency of blue-uniformed government employees who can deliver minor citations and court notices to people… it’s called the United States Postal Service. Save the flashing blue lights and armed confrontations for when they’re really needed, and let more officers safely return home to their families at the end of each shift.
(Photo of a New York State Police car on the side of a highway by Flickr user dwightsghost)