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The Road Safely Traveled

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
February 13, 2023

As the police lights flashed in my rear-view mirror the possible moving violations raced through my mind. There was too much traffic in Midtown Atlanta at midday for me to have been speeding. I had turned right at a green light, and I am a habitual user of the turn signal. Perhaps my wheels had veered across the dotted white line, or I had missed a sign requiring only certain vehicles in that particular lane.  It was a sunny afternoon and my son and I were off to the neighborhood park after his annual physical at the doctor’s office up the road. The officer slowly approached and directly stated through my open window that he simply noticed both of my brake lights were out. I thanked the officer, as I would not have otherwise noticed this issue behind me with my own vehicle, and within the week had replaced these safety signals without incident.

If only all traffic stops were as straightforward and useful as my experience last spring. I recognize in my interactions with police officers that I am a privileged individual with far less reasonable apprehension about officers than others in our society; and while my gripes about traffic stops are relatively trivial compared to the tragedies some have experienced, the problems still are worthwhile to consider. When I was a graduate student the campus police once pulled me over, allegedly and wrongly for rolling through a stop sign. The notable aspect here was that I was riding a bicycle and, while the officer claimed a bicyclist must put a foot down to fully stop, the police department later confirmed that assertion was not correct. It was the quietest time of the summer and it appeared to me that the officer was rather bored. I understand that cyclists who do not follow the rules of the road can be annoying, particularly in congested areas, and a potential hazard to pedestrians, but the role of traffic police should focus on protecting cyclists from the real danger of motor vehicles rather than engaging in petty sirens and misinformed lectures that fail to protect anyone.

In another incident several years ago, local police officers pulled my friend over for an expired vehicle registration with me as a passenger. The small administrative infraction was indisputable and my friend acknowledged and accepted the ticket that would require her to pay a small fine to resolve this minor issue. As the officers were processing the matter I retrieved my cellphone form my pocket to send a text message that we would be slightly delayed due to the situation at hand. An officer warned me that I should not have reached into my pocket, as that action could be misinterpreted by law enforcement.  Cellphones are ubiquitous and I cannot imagine someone in any other public-facing profession advising that pulling out a phone during a clearly resolved event where everyone had been as friendly as possible could somehow be a potentially hostile act. Policing is at times high risk and it is understandable from their experiences that officers expect the worst, but the fear of the public in what was ultimately a paperwork matter calls for policy change. Either policing needs reconsideration or there may need to be different personnel to handle this aspect of the roadways.

There’s an ongoing national dialogue about reform to law enforcement. Traffic laws are not always front and center as institutions grapple with these challenges. One of the most visible locations for policing is on the roadways of our communities. One of the most dangerous locations in our communities is on our roadways, with motor vehicle accidents taking lives across the country every day. Whether it is texting or alcohol or other distractions and impairments, many, if not most, of these deadly crashes are avoidable if drivers were to comply with various safety regulations. More direct policing of drivers may not be the solution in the current environment, but there needs to be more efforts to prevent these unnecessary tragedies that do not need to be an acceptable risk of the road.

There are certainly policy solutions to consider to protect us from traffic accidents. Fully automated vehicles many not yet be ready for prime time, but research, development and deployment of artificial intelligence and other driver-assisting technologies can provide the necessary help to keep humans behind the wheel safe. Traffic cameras and other remote technologies can encourage people to follow the rules of the road and warn of problems such as broken taillights. Although traditional policing of the street may require alterations, there is certainly a role for street-level bureaucrats to enforce norms that promote public safety. What is lacking at the moment is the prioritization of this ongoing crisis. We can all agree on safe streets as a goal, we just need to work get there, safely.

Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia.  He has been a bicyclist since 1988 and a licensed driver (originally in the State of New York, but also in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Georgia) since 1999.  Dr. Deitchman’s email address is [email protected] and he is on Twitter @Deitchman.    

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One Response to The Road Safely Traveled

  1. Kim Reply

    February 17, 2023 at 11:20 am

    Not sure about if the column is referring to automated traffic enforcement, which is a big NO, and should be banned. Proper engineering will solve many problems. Talk to the National Motorists Association.

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