A high rate of state patrol traffic stops in U.S. states is not correlated with decreased car crash rates, a new study reportedly found. This debunks one of the main justifications for excessive policing on the country’s roads.
Researchers at an association of Cleveland-area hospitals and universities analyzed data on more than 150 million traffic stops made by state patrol officers in 33 states from 2006 to 2016, comparing them to car-crash rates in those same communities. The analysis showed that, in the aggregate, there was no significant correlation between high rates of police stops per mile and a low crash rate per mile, or between a high crash rate and a low policing rate.
And while more traffic stops don’t stop motorists from crashing into each other, it does increase the possibility of dangerous contact between people of color and law enforcement. Black drivers are 63% more likely to be stopped in traffic than white drivers, despite driving 16% less. They’re also three times more likely to be killed in such an encounter.
The study also pointed out that though state patrol officers are typically associated with interstate policing, they’re actually responsible for 83% of all traffic stops in the U.S.
Among the communities studied, some were deadlier than others. For example, South Carolina had the single bloodiest year in the study period when adjusted for driver miles travelled in 2005, while Rhode Island had the safest year in 2015. Nebraska drivers saw a record-setting spike in traffic policing in 2004, during a controversial period which drew scrutiny from equity-minded researchers.
However, as the study found, the most heavily policed states were not necessarily the safest. Neither Black nor white motorists experienced a crash safety benefit from a higher rate of police stops among drivers of their demographic. Moreover, the regions that imposed harsher penalties on drivers, like arrests or large fines, did not experience an aggregate drop in crash deaths either. (For the analysis, 17 states were excluded since there wasn’t enough consistent crash and stop data to make a good comparison with the other communities in the study, mostly because they’re not required by federal law to do so).
The researchers concluded that more study may be needed to understand whether low police stop rates predict high motor-vehicle crash rates, even though the study proved that the inverse was false on U.S. roads. Also, because there’s an absence of hard evidence that shows routine traffic stops can become an effective and equitable tool for curbing traffic deaths, advocates argue we must invest in other proven strategies that don’t potentially endanger people of color.
“Given the magnitude of public-health crisis related to injuries and deaths sustained by [motor vehicle crashes], directing scarce resources to effective strategies such as rural and urban infrastructural changes, motor-vehicle modifications with advanced lifesaving technology, community-based safety initiatives, improved access to health care, or prioritizing trauma system and improved trauma care is imperative,” the authors reportedly wrote.