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According to a survey reported in chapter six of the textbook, most drivers report feeling less safe on the roads, yet many of those same drivers also report using cell phones while driving, exceeding speed limits on a regular basis, and violating other traffic laws. 1. Discuss this apparent inconsistency.
2. Most members of the public tend to be against electronic traffic enforcement (such as red light cameras, stop sign cameras and speed cameras). However, although police are still required to enforce traffic laws the use of those electronic technologies serves to reduce the amount of negative contacts between police and the public. Do you think that traffic laws should be enforced primarily through electronic means or should police continue to be the primaryenforcement strategy? Explain your answer.
According to a survey reported in chapter six of the textbook, most drivers report feeling less safe on the roads, yet many of those same drivers also report using cell phones while driving, exceeding
CHAPTER SIX Vehicle and Traffic Laws Introduction Traffic enforcement is one of the major functions of most police departments and accounts for the most official contacts between the police and the public. This is especially true in large urban areas where the need for traffic safety and the maintenance of a smooth flow of both vehicular and pedestrian traffic requires a significant proportion of police patrol time. Vehicle and traffic laws have grown in number and complexity as the availability of motor vehicles has expanded dramatically over the past century. Frequent enactment of additional traffic laws places even more demands on already strained resources. With traffic enforcement, as well as with other police responsibilities, the issue of sufficient resources is of serious concern. This chapter will review the history and evolution of traffic laws and some of the problems facing police and the public in the enforcement of those laws. History Although self-propelled vehicles can be traced back to the late 1700s, most agree that the age of the American automobile began around the turn of the 20th century. Auto companies such as Oldsmobile, Ford and Cadillac began mass production around 1900. Perhaps the first traffic law came into effect in 1901 when New York required owners to register their automobiles. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that license plates were required in all states and driver’s licenses were not required until the 1930s. As the use of automobiles began to increase, the need for such laws as speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs, one-way streets and a variety of other regulations became apparent. Ironically, many of these rules were first introduced in the book, “Rules of the Road” by William P. Eno in 1903. Eno proposed such regulations as slow traffic staying to the right, passing on the left, pedestrian crosswalks and stop signs, as well as other innovations.1 Most of the early safety laws focused on external interactions aimed at providing a smooth flow of traffic and preventing collisions between cars and injuries to pedestrians. It was not until fairly recently that laws addressed activities within the vehicle. Seat belt laws, for example, were first introduced in New York State in 1984. New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan and New Mexico followed shortly after.2 More recently, the increased use of cell phones, particularly those with texting capabilities, led to a variety of state and local ordinances against distracted driving. Unlike criminal laws that require intent, traffic violations are considered “strict liability laws,” which means that a person can be guilty without having any criminal intent. For example, if a person unknowingly exceeds the speed limit they can still be held legally responsible for their actions. Traffic Laws and Violations With the proliferation of new traffic laws there has also been an increase in public disregard for those laws. Drivers routinely exceed speed limits, pass on the right, use cell phones, text while driving and so on. A survey conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) revealed a significant problem of distracted driving, risky and aggressive driving behaviors, driving while drowsy and/or otherwise impaired.3 Cell phone use was particularly common: 60.5% of drivers talked on a hands-free cell phone while 49.1% talked on a hand-held cell phone. Drivers are more accepting of hands-free cell phone use (69.0%) than hand-held cell phone use (24.6%) while driving. More view drivers texting or emailing while driving as a serious threat (96.8%) than drivers talking on cell phones (87.7%).4 However, in the past 30 days, 44.9% of drivers read a text message or email while driving and 34.6% of drivers typed or sent a text message or email while driving. A majority of respondents (87.6%) support legislation against reading, typing or sending a text message or email and 73.4% of drivers support having a law against using a hand-held cell phone while driving. However, only 40.9% support an outright ban on using any type of cell phone (including hands-free) while driving.5 Many also reported risky and aggressive driving: A majority of respondents (87.6%) support legislation against reading, typing or sending a text message or email and 73.4% of drivers support having a law against using a hand-held cell phone while driving. However, only 40.9% support an outright ban on using any type of cell phone (including hands-free) while driving.6 Drowsy driving was also a common problem: 42.4% of drivers have at least one or more days when they get less than six hours of sleep in a typical week.7 The majority of motorists view drowsy driving as a serious or somewhat serious threat to their safety (87.9%) and an unacceptable behavior (95.2%); yet around 3 in 10 (30.8%) admit to driving when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open at some point in the past month.8 Impaired driving was cited as a serious problem: An overwhelming majority of drivers consider driving after drinking alcohol a serious threat to their personal safety (94.3%). However, 13.5% reported driving at least once in the past year when they thought their alcohol levels might have been close to or possibly over the legal limit. A majority of drivers (90.8%) perceive people driving after using illegal drugs to be either a very serious threat or a somewhat serious threat to their personal safety.9 Most respondents supported requiring alcohol-ignition interlocks for drivers convicted of DWI, even for first time offenders (79.9%); requiring built-in interlocks for all new vehicles (73.0%) and having a per se law for marijuana (82.9%).10 It is quite apparent that there is a general and growing disregard for traffic laws. It is not uncommon to see police cars riding along with the rest of the traffic that is exceeding the speed limit. Traffic does slow down, however, when a police officer is apparently issuing a summons on the side of the road. Unfortunately, the slower traffic is only temporary as drivers resume speeding after they pass the police car. Police readily admit that there are not enough police to enforce all the laws, therefore they must focus on drivers who commit the most flagrant violations. For example, if a speeder is weaving in and out of traffic that person might be stopped even though everyone else is exceeding the speed limit at a similar pace. Thus, police use their discretion to the exceptional violator, the one that stands out of the pack. This discretionary practice functions as tacit approval of those other drivers who are exceeding the speed limit and establishes, de facto, a new, unofficial, higher speed limit. Consequently, when the new higher speed limit becomes the norm and drivers gradually exceed that unofficial limit. This incremental process can easily get out of hand and result in a wholesale disregard for traffic laws. Unfortunately, the perception that they are somehow immune from the law lulls many speeding drivers into a false sense of security. Drivers can and do get stopped for speeding and to their dismay, receive summonses for doing so. The excuse, “everyone else is doing it” rarely dissuades the officer. Because police have wide discretion in traffic enforcement and one officer is not bound by the standards of another, an offense ignored by one officer can legitimately be enforced by another. Traffic Enforcement The federal government has had a significant impact on the enforcement of traffic laws. By providing incentives in the form of grants administrated by the State Highway Safety Offices (SHSO), the federal government helped to shape the enforcement strategies of nearly all the states. For example, Section 405, of the Occupant Protection Incentive Grants, provided grant money to states that meet four of the following six criteria: A law requiring seat belt use by all front seat passengers (FY 1999 and FY 2000) and beginning in FY 2001, by all passengers. A primary enforcement seat belt law. Minimum fines or points for violations of seat belt and child restraint laws. A statewide special enforcement program for occupant protection. A statewide child passenger protection education program. A child passenger protection law. In order to qualify for these funds, states must submit annual reports showing compliance with the criteria and meet performance goals and objectives. Congress has revised its grant program several times, adding new incentive grants, penalties and sanctions. Other grant programs involve offences related to Alcohol-Impaired Driving Countermeasure Incentive Grants and Child Safety and Child Booster Seat Incentive Grants. Grants can be substantial, amounting to as much as over $12 million to New York, $15 million to Texas and over $21 million to California during fiscal year 2010. One of the notable criteria for receiving grant money is the state’s enforcement statistics. Municipalities share in these grants as well as the income from summons fines, resulting in a strong economic incentive to issue summonses. The higher the rate of enforcement, the greater the financial rewards to local government, resulting in pressure on local police to actively participate in the enforcement objectives. This is accomplished in two ways. First, teams of officers establish checkpoints where violators may be spotted and stopped with minimum traffic disruption. Checkpoints located at parkway entrance and exit ramps are used to check for seatbelt compliance while checkpoints for driving under the influence are most likely to be operated during early morning hours and on weekends. The second and perhaps the most controversial method is the use of activity quotas. Because the word “quota” is objectionable to the public and police officers alike, police departments avoid the use of the phrase and substitute more acceptable terms such as “activity expectations,” “performance goals” and “benchmarks.” Nevertheless, the intent is the same; police officers must make a minimum number of arrests and issue a minimum number of traffic summonses or face consequences. In a New York Times article, a police commander was secretly recorded telling his subordinate supervisors that officers in his command must write more summonses or face consequences. A specific number was given for officers on a particular shift. They were expected to write, “… as a group—20 summonses a week, five each for double-parking, parking at a bus stop, driving without a seat belt and driving while using a cell phone.”11 In Los Angeles, two police officers were awarded a $2 million judgment against the city for requiring them to meet summons quotas and for actions against the officers by the department affecting their careers after they reported the misconduct and refused to meet the quotas.12 Numerous similar media reports of quotas and reaction thereto are readily available online. Quotas raise a number of questions. For example, what is the purpose of traffic law enforcement and do quotas serve to accomplish that purpose? This question can be answered in terms of means and ends. Theoretically, the desired end result, as most would agree, is the smooth, safe flow of traffic. The means would be strategies aimed at controlling street, road and highway traffic. Controlling tactics would focus on targeted enforcement efforts employed to modify or change driving habits and behaviors so that they will comply with existing laws. These tactics would include but not be limited to summons issuance. Success, that is, achievement of the desired end result, would be measured in terms of the degree in which traffic is safe and flows smoothly. However, if the intended end result is increased revenue, then it makes little difference where and when traffic summonses are issued. The use of quotas also has a detrimental effect on police relations with the public. It reduces the amount of discretion police officers have to determine if a summons is the best way to deal with a particular violation. There are times when extenuating circumstances may suggest that a warning to the driver might be the preferable course of action. The fact that police must meet quotas reduces legitimate enforcement of law to a perceived numbers game, a game in which the citizen is the loser. The citizen is left with the belief that the reason for the summons was not necessarily his behavior but for a fine to contribute to the government’s coffers. There is also the claim that quotas lead to racial profiling by police. Even if individual officers are completely unbiased in fulfilling their quotas, the combination of quotas and police deployment practices may actually result in a disproportionate number of citations against minorities, particularly in larger cities. For example, police departments normally deploy higher numbers of officers to high-crime neighborhoods. People of color have traditionally inhabited these neighborhoods. The increased number of officers raises the probability that more offenses will be observed by officers in that neighborhood than in other places throughout the city that have fewer assigned officers. These opportunistic observations are likely to result in more summonses and arrests of minorities, thereby raising the specter of racial profiling. Automated Enforcement New technologies are available to augment traffic enforcement by police personnel, specifically the use of red light and speed cameras. These cameras have the benefit of not only freeing officers for other duties but they also function as totally impartial enforcers of the law. There is no question of quota, preferential or discriminatory treatment or any of the subjectivity questions usually associated with police officer enforcement. They operate around the clock, 365 day a year and instill a level of certainty of enforcement not attributable to police. Many states already use speed and red light cameras, albeit under limited circumstances. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) as of the end of 2018, 21 states, as well as the District of Columbia, permit some form of red light camera use.13 Ten states prohibit their use, and 19 states have no state law concerning red light camera enforcement.14 Twelve states and the District of Columbia have speed cameras currently operating in at least one location.15 Scofflaws Despite efforts to increase summons issuance through quotas, the courts, particularly in large cities, lack sufficient resources to process those cases and collect fines. For example, a recent audit in Los Angeles revealed that there was an estimated $15 million in unpaid parking tickets.16 Seattle had over $54 million in unpaid tickets, with one person alone accounting for $72,000.17 Commentary It is obvious that public compliance with traffic ordinances is gradually eroding. There are two likely explanations: first, available police resources are inadequate to effectively enforce the volume of traffic laws currently in effect, and second, current strategies for the use of police resources are misdirected. Also possible is a combination of the two. There is an underlying philosophy of balance scales in law enforcement. That is to say, violations of law are somehow offset by apprehensions (summonses and arrests). If there is an increase in violations of a particular law, an increase in apprehensions with regard to that law is evidence of police effectiveness. The use of activity quotas, not only in traffic enforcement but also in general practice, is an outgrowth of this philosophy. Although there is some logic to this approach, it tends to be an inefficient and often ineffective use of police resources. This is particularly true in regulatory criminal law enforcement as compared to the violations of laws that are usually reported to police, such as assaults and robberies. Take the example of the New York Transit Police efforts to control graffiti in the subways. During the period of the 1960s and 1970s, when spray paint and magic markers became widely used to graffiti public and private property, subway trains became an attractive target by youths and young adults. The result was that virtually every visible part of every one of the more than 6,000 train cars was full of graffiti. There were graffiti markings all over the inside windows, doors, seats and ceilings. The outsides of the trains were also covered with graffiti, sometimes in the form of massive murals. The New York Transit Authority had all but given up trying to keep the train cars clean, resulting in new graffiti being placed or spray-painted over existing graffiti. So extensive was the graffiti that is was impossible to tell the rate at which it was being applied. The Transit Police response to this problem was to make arrests and issue summonses for graffiti in the amount of over 150,000 apprehensions per year. Because most of those apprehended were juveniles, the already strained juvenile justice system failed to impose any significant penalties, which simply encouraged them to continue their behavior. If public and private officials complained about the problem the police responded by increasing the volume of apprehensions; again, the philosophy of balancing the scales. Nevertheless, the volume of apprehensions appeared to have little effect on the problem and everyone, including the police, was resolved to the futility of the graffiti problem. This situation continued unchanged until the early 1980s when David Gunn, a newly appointed President of the Transit Authority, challenged the police to take a comprehensive approach to eliminating the graffiti problem and committed the operating personnel of the Transit Authority to coordinate their efforts with the police. It should be noted that the following is an overview of a rather extensive and complex program. For the sake of brevity, many elements of the program will not be discussed. The first step was to understand the nature of the graffiti problem. There were three general categories of offenders. One group consisted of gang members and others who wanted to write their “tags,” which are street names and street numbers. Gang members traditionally use tags to mark territorial boundaries. Self-proclaimed “graffiti artists” made up the second group. They were responsible for large colorful murals on the side of train cars. They preferred train lines that had outdoor stations so that their art can be easily photographed for their portfolios. The third group was made up of typical vandals bent on defacing property. The strategy was to take a large, seemingly unsolvable problem and break it down to manageable parts. Each part consisted of one subway line. The first was the Flushing line that ran from Times Square to Main Street in Queens. There were a number of principles that were adopted in this effort. The first step involved a security inventory at train storage areas were trains were kept during periods of low demand. Broken fences and other means of unauthorized entry were secured to keep vandals from defacing the trains. Second, all the train cars on the targeted line were thoroughly cleaned of graffiti prior to going into service and would not stay in service unless they remained graffiti free. About twenty-five officers, in addition to the normal complement, were assigned in uniform and plain clothes to patrol this line. Those in plain clothes would often wear reflective orange vests, similar to those worn by transit authority workers. After several arrests, the vandals were conditioned into thinking that anyone similarly dressed could be a police officer. This strategy had the additional benefit of providing a residual police presence after the main contingent of officers was redeployed. Graffiti incidences on the targeted line were eventually reduced mainly because the incentives for graffiti murals and tags were removed. The vandals eventually moved to other areas where they could operate without interference and where their “artwork” would not be disturbed. After several weeks, the incidents of graffiti reached a manageable level and because new graffiti could be easily spotted, officers could concentrate on the times and areas were graffiti was likely to occur, making prevention and enforcement efforts more efficient. When it became apparent that the Flushing line was under control, the original contingent of officers was gradually moved to the next line in the program. This pattern of deployment allowed the police and other Transit Authority personnel to gradually take control of one train line at a time until after about five years the entire system was clean of graffiti. As far as enforcement was concerned, the level of apprehensions was reduced from over 150,000 per year to about 5,000. Consider the issue of qualitative vs. quantitative measures. When measured on the basis of quality the program should be considered a success, however, judging by the quantity of apprehensions alone, the program might not represent aggressive police enforcement. Again, the primary strategy was to divide a large, unmanageable problem into smaller, manageable pieces. After solving each of those smaller pieces, with patience, the larger problem can eventually be controlled. Controlling highway speeding could be dealt with using an approach similar to the subway graffiti problem. In fact, the “Safe Corridor” program sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides an excellent place to begin. A “Safe Corridor” is an area or segment of highway identified as such due to increased accident rates, fatalities, traffic volume and/or other highway traffic criteria. Although the Safe Corridor program is not specifically designed to deal with a speeding problem only, the concept of declaring a segment of road as a full enforcement zone could achieve the desired results. Because the current problem of excessive speeding did not emerge overnight, corrective efforts will not provide immediate results but will require patience and a methodical course of action. A segment should be of a distance that police resources can adequately control. It is more important to control a shorter distance of road than to be overly ambitious and select a segment that would require more resources than are available. Signage together with public announcements would alert drivers with sufficient notice of the total enforcement program. The public has been accustomed to hearing empty threats of full enforcement programs so it is important to back up those announcements with a full commitment to the program. Monitoring the designated segment of road is vital to measuring results. After a period of full enforcement there should be a residual enforcement effect as drivers become conditioned to the new expectations. Once compliance with speed limits reaches a satisfactory level, police resources can be gradually reassigned to a new segment of road. Patience is critical and a reputation of full enforcement must be maintained. Early results may tempt administrators to take on larger areas than their resources can adequately control. If drivers realize that they can speed without a high risk of being stopped, the program will lose credibility. Using a combination of automated speed enforcement cameras augmented by marked and unmarked police vehicles, police could take control of highways and roads in their jurisdiction one segment at a time. The duration of such a program depends on several factors, including the length of highway or road in the jurisdiction and the amount of police resources and speed cameras available. In fact, a variation of this approach already exists in many small towns across the country. These towns, over time have gained the reputation of fully enforcing traffic laws. Many map providers also include the notice that traffic laws are fully enforced in particular towns and it is interesting to note how drivers slow down when travelling through these areas. As a frequent cross country traveler I have had first-hand experience with these reactions. Summary Street and highway safety is one of the primary functions of police. One method used to accomplish this mission is the enforcement of laws that prohibit behavior that tends to create unsafe conditions. In addition to that primary purpose, additional incentives to enforce those laws have taken the form of government grants and political pressures to increase revenue to municipalities in the form of fines for traffic violations. Police enforcement is one of the activities necessary to qualify for federal grant monies by targeting certain behaviors identified in those grants. In addition, police activity quotas designed to meet grant requirements have been imposed on police officers. These practices result in a backlash from police officers and from the public alike and question the efficacy of traffic law enforcement efforts. Public displeasure with these tactics, including claims of racial profiling, is primarily directed at police officers. Despite current enforcement efforts, public disregard for traffic laws has been growing to a level that police seem unable to control with existing resources.