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The rise in traffic deaths could be related to changes in policing


American roads have become more dangerous since the pandemic. The traffic fatality rate jumped during the lockdowns. And even now, with traffic mostly back to normal, people are still dying at a rate about 18% higher than four years ago. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, one potential cause may be recent changes in policing.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Seattle resident Carol Cummings is convinced that traffic is more dangerous lately - more speeding on city streets, more rolling through stops, more cars with headlights out. She's a regular driver, but she's also a retired police officer, and she thinks she knows why this is happening.

CAROL CUMMINGS: I can't think of the last time that I have seen a police car with a motorist pulled over on the side of the road that was not involved in something like an accident.

KASTE: So she requested the data about traffic stops. And indeed, it turns out that Seattle Police have been handing out a lot fewer citations. Compared to 2019, last year's total was down 86%. And Seattle's police chief knows this.

ADRIAN DIAZ: Some of the officers don't feel like they have enough adequate time to do the traffic enforcement.

KASTE: Chief Adrian Diaz says his department lost hundreds of officers after the protests in 2020, and those who are left need to spend more of their shifts on urgent calls. But some of this is also departmental policy. Last year, the chief instructed his officers not to stop cars for certain low-level violations - expired license tabs or objects hanging from rearview mirrors.

DIAZ: There was a feeling that if there was a way to reduce these violations, that you would reduce potential disparities in stops, and you would also eliminate unnecessary contacts.

KASTE: That's contacts between police and citizens. Low-level stops have been restricted in some other cities too, the result of a nationwide campaign in recent years following deadly outcomes in high-profile traffic stops of Black men such as Daunte Wright. Susan Nembhard is a researcher at the Urban Institute, where she's written about the argument for fewer traffic stops.

SUSAN NEMBHARD: For people of color, and specifically Black people, it can actually be one of the most dangerous interactions that they have. And that's from experiences of not only physical harm when something terrible happens, like a shooting or a murder or something like that, but also emotional harm and mental anxiety and stress.

KASTE: It's important to emphasize here that Nembhard and others are talking about low-level offenses - say, a broken taillight or unbuckled seat belt. They say when the police stops someone for things like that, it doesn't make the road safer. But Jonathan Adkins isn't so sure.

JONATHAN ADKINS: We know people who are Black and brown have been disproportionately stopped, but perhaps we've gone too far on that other side.

KASTE: Adkins runs the Governors Highway Safety Association. He says enforcement should be equitable, but it should also be visible and expected.

ADKINS: Why do many of us drive dangerously on the roads? Because we think we can get away with it. And guess what? We probably can right now in many places in the country. There's not enforcement out there. They're hesitant to write tickets. And we're seeing the results of that.

KASTE: In policing, there's a theory that people are most deterred from breaking the law not by the severity of the potential punishment, but by the likelihood of getting caught. That's why speeds go down around those marked speed cameras. By the same token, if cops aren't seen pulling cars over for the small stuff - say, expired license tabs - people start to think that they'll get away with more serious offenses, such as running red lights. A lot of cops think this is what's happening on American roads right now, but Jacob Denney doesn't buy it. He's with SPUR, an advocacy group in San Francisco, where they're also pushing to restrict police stops for nonmoving violations.

JACOB DENNEY: I genuinely have never been convinced by the theory that individual officers on the road provokes the kind of surety of being caught that reduces deviant or criminal behavior. Because even when you put a ton of resources into traffic enforcement and you have a lot of officers active and out on the scene, it's not enough to cover everywhere, right?

KASTE: Back in Seattle, retired cop Carol Cummings acknowledges that the police can't be everywhere.

CUMMINGS: That's true. But having done 37 years of police work and having stopped an awful lot of reckless drivers, you may not stop them all, but you will have made an impact on the person that you've pulled over and you have either cited or warned.

KASTE: And Cummings says, for her personally, what keeps her driving safely isn't so much the fear of getting caught. It's all those years she spent being called to the scene of car wrecks and what she saw there.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.


Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.