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Ban All Routine Traffic Stops

Johnny Townsend: Many routine traffic stops for a broken taillight or driving five miles over the speed limit end up with a police officer shooting an unarmed person, often someone black or brown.

Dismantling institutional racism can’t be completed overnight, but we can take steps to begin breaking off critical pieces right away. One easy yet essential advance is to ban traffic stops that don’t involve immediate threats to public safety.

Traffic Stops

We’ve all seen the police engage in high-speed car chases in movies and on the news. Such chases are naturally exciting. But so many innocent drivers and pedestrians are killed as a result that some cities have banned car chases entirely.

People do not need to be injured or killed over minor infractions, not the drivers, not the officers, and certainly not bystanders.

Many routine traffic stops for a broken taillight or driving five miles over the speed limit end up with a police officer shooting an unarmed person, often someone black or brown.

Likewise, many routine traffic stops for a broken taillight or driving five miles over the speed limit end up with a police officer shooting an unarmed person, often someone black or brown. And these are drivers who didn’t flee, who didn’t pose a threat. But trained police officers are still human beings whose behavior can be influenced by fear and adrenalin. They are people who have grown up in a culture ensuring that even the most open-minded and humane among us have at least some lingering bias. When a life or death decision must be made in a split second, Sunday School lessons on “love thy neighbor” are replaced by the biological imperative to survive.

Are the officers justified in feeling this level of fear? Are they overreacting out of bias? Are they subconsciously—or even consciously—using the incident as an opportunity to hurt someone they consider “less than”? We can avoid these emotionally charged debates altogether. More importantly, we can avoid the deadly consequences of both justified and unjustified fear, of animus that can be lethal yet never proven. If police officers are legitimately putting themselves at risk by stopping a driver for something minor, that traffic stop doesn’t need to happen. Let the errant driver go, for God’s sake. Revenue from issuing tickets needn’t drop. Unless there’s an immediate need to stop a kidnapper or killer, officers can record the license plate (like cameras do at stoplights all the time) and mail a ticket to the offender. There’s no point in a physical confrontation of any kind, even a mild, orderly one. Not being forced to spend millions on investigations and settlements, and not suffering constant PR nightmares, must surely be worth something as well.

If we can’t justify endangering lives in a car chase over minor violations, then we shouldn’t keep endangering them during traffic stops for non-threatening offenses. Such stops are not worth the death of the police officer, the driver, or any passengers in the car. Drug possession or car theft don’t warrant the death penalty, after all, even after an arrest and conviction. Expired brake tags or carpool lane violations aren’t felonies. These lapses certainly don’t warrant execution without a trial. If “Police Lives Matter,” why insist on endangering officers for trivial infractions?

And if “All Lives Matter,” why feel compelled to continue a policy which can only lead to additional deaths of both officers and civilians over petty offenses?

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As a child attending my first big tent circus, I remember the announcer revealing that the trapeze artists were about to walk across the tightrope without a net. Even at that young age, I thought, “Do they really need to risk killing themselves for a show?”

There are times police officers and other first responders need to put their lives on the line. There are times when everyday civilians need to do it, too.

But there’s no need for anyone to risk their life just to reprimand someone over a broken taillight. Some officers have even pulled cars over simply because they were driving three miles under the speed limit along a corridor frequently used by drug traffickers. If the driver was being so careful not to attract attention, the officers reasoned, he was probably up to no good.

When officers can justify pulling over a car in perfect condition being driven without breaking even the most minor regulation, we have a problem with the status quo.

For the sake of those killed during routine traffic stops on a regular basis, we must cease all stops that don’t involve reckless or intoxicated driving. “We’ve always done it this way” is no longer a valid rationale for sustaining a policy that inflicts so much unnecessary harm.

Johnny Townsend

Let’s ban all routine traffic stops.

Johnny Townsend

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