Driving Change: Rethinking Minor Traffic Stops to Advance Equity and Efficiency

FOR MINOR OFFENSES

Problem

Pretextual stops based on minor vehicle violations like non-functioning taillights, expired registration tags, or failing to signal turns have been shown to disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic drivers, as well as residents of lower-income neighborhoods. Data analysis of traffic stops in major cities has revealed significant racial disparities – for example, one study found Black drivers were nearly twice as likely to be pulled over compared to white drivers for equipment violations. Moreover, hit rates (the share of stops in which contraband is found) are lower for Black and Hispanic drivers, undermining justifications for this disproportionate targeting. This enables racial profiling, as officers may make assumptions about drivers based on race when pulling them over for minor issues. In addition, pretextual stops erode public trust and police legitimacy, especially among communities of color. Residents who feel unfairly targeted are less likely to view the police favorably or cooperate with them during investigations. While traffic enforcement is an important duty, officers should be judicious in making stops solely for minor violations, and mindful to avoid racial bias or appearing to over-police particular neighborhoods. Building strong community relationships requires policing strategies that are perceived as impartial and justified.

Background

Black Americans have faced disproportionately higher rates of traffic stops and searches by police compared to other groups. Factors contributing to these disparities include racial profiling, implicit bias, and the differential enforcement of traffic laws. For example, multiple studies have shown that Black drivers are stopped at higher rates than White drivers for low-level violations like equipment problems or administrative issues, even though data shows they are less likely to be found with illegal items. These unjustified pretextual stops rooted in racial profiling practices have harmed Black communities. They increase fear and tension with police while eroding trust and discouraging cooperation. Pretextual stops risk greater harm through brutality, misconduct, and civil rights violations when officers exploit stops to investigate unrelated issues. The trauma and collective harm of these discriminatory practices have been compared to the adverse mental health effects seen in Black communities following police killings and exposure to systemic racism. Traffic stop disparities reflect and reinforce broader structural inequalities.

Policy Response

Cities limit low-level stops, prioritize high-risk violations, and implement transparency, bias training, community engagement, and restorative justice initiatives.

Why It Matters?

Pretextual stops based on minor vehicle violations like non-functioning taillights, expired registration tags, or failing to signal turns have been shown to disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic drivers, as well as residents of lower-income neighborhoods. Analysis of traffic stops in major cities has revealed significant racial disparities – for example, one study found Black drivers were nearly twice as likely to be pulled over compared to white drivers for equipment violations. Moreover, hit rates (the share of stops in which contraband is found) are lower for Black and Hispanic drivers, undermining justifications for this disproportionate targeting.

This enables racial profiling, as officers may make assumptions about drivers based on race when pulling them over for minor issues. In addition, pretextual stops erode public trust and police legitimacy, especially among communities of color. Residents who feel unfairly targeted are less likely to view the police favorably or cooperate with them during investigations.

While traffic enforcement is an important duty, officers should be judicious in making stops solely for minor violations, and mindful to avoid racial bias or appearing to over-police particular neighborhoods. Building strong community relationships requires policing strategies that are perceived as impartial and justified.

Key Takeaways

  • Black drivers experience 33-50% higher stop rates compared to white/Hispanic drivers annually.
  • Despite higher search rates, black drivers have lower illegal item possession than white drivers. 
  • Pretextual stops erode trust, increase tensions, and risk misconduct while fair enforcement promotes public safety.
  • Policy changes have reduced pretextual stops from 25% to 5% in some jurisdictions.