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Op-Ed: Despite Months of Protests, NHTSA Still Thinks Cops Can Make Cyclists and Pedestrians Safer

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

There’s just one thing missing from the federal agency’s “idea book” on enhancing police support for road safety: any acknowledgement of the existence of violent structural racism.

By Kea Wilson, Streetsblog

After months of nationwide protests against police racism and brutality, America’s top federal transportation safety agency insists in a new report that armed police enforcement can make pedestrians and cyclists safer — completely ignoring the ways that police themselves endanger non-White road users, and ignoring the countless advocates of color who have called for the removal of cops from traffic enforcement.

In early August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration quietly released an “idea book” for how law enforcement departments can use their influence make non-drivers safer on our roadways — but it doesn’t contain a single mention of race, racism, or the heavily-documented disparities in police brutality against people of color compared to whites.

The study authors, who are employees of the federally funded Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasized in an email to Streetsblog that the report was authored “over a year ago, and may not reflect some of the conversations or current practices we’re seeing across the country today.” For its part, NHTSA declined to comment on why the study was released this month, in the midst of a particularly visible wave of police brutality protests across the nation following the death of George Floyd and increasingly violent anti-protestor rhetoric from President Trump himself.

Of course, conversations about police brutality were far from invisible in the years when the NHTSA report was first written — and despite decades (and indeed, centuries) of activism from communities of color across America, Black people are still three times more likely to be killed by police than white people in the U.S. And because traffic stops are the most common reason for civilian interaction with the police, the roadway has famously been the setting for many of those deaths, including many of the movement’s largest flashpoints: the 2016 killing of Ferguson pedestrian Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson, for example, is widely credited with inciting the Black Lives Matter movement.

[Editor’s Note: On Monday, August 31, deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department shot and killed Dijon Kizzee, a bike-riding Black man whom the deputies said they initially stopped for a vehicle code violation.]

The handful of Twitter users who caught wind of the buried report were disturbed that its authors would neglect to include any recommendations to end police brutality in the traffic realm. The “idea book,” while not legally binding, was funded by taxpayers and carries the endorsement of a major federal agency, and could influence policy in police departments across America.

You can’t send a cop to do the job of a traffic engineer — or a community advocate

The report doesn’t just fail to acknowledge a national conversation about how often police endanger pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users of color. It also fails to acknowledge how ill-prepared police forces are to end traffic violence more broadly while suggesting reforms that would likely put even more money into police budgets that many activists are demanding that cities defund and reallocate to meet the needs of Black communities, whether in the realm of traffic safety or any other realm those communities identify.

The report, for instance, rightly notes that “poor roadway designs often increase the amount of non-compliance with traffic laws, increasing the burden on law enforcement who are called upon to respond to safety issues.” But instead of advocating for departments of transportation (which could actually build self-enforcing pedestrian and bike infrastructure) to get more than the pitiful 2 percent of federal dollars they currently receive, the Safety Administration advances this idea instead:

As eyes and ears of the community, law enforcement officers may identify traffic safety issues that can be corrected through changes to the built environment. When considering community partners, engineering and planning staff are key stakeholders as they are responsible for roadway configurations, plans for development or construction, and traffic operations and maintenance. A strong line of communication between enforcement and engineering bolsters both departments and allows for a better understanding of approaches that may be necessary to address pedestrian and bicyclist safety issues in the community.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: no, even with an unconscionable amount of money for additional training, most police officers are unlikely to become qualified to identify road designs that are dangerous to non-drivers — something that even many transportation planners are not adequately trained to treat with any real urgency in their graduate programs.

But perhaps the most disturbing element of NHTSA’s statement is the casual assertion that police officers — a group with a long track record of demonstrated implicit bias towards people of color — can also serve as those communities’ objective “eyes and ears.” Even when officers are required to maintain residency in the communities they patrol — and even when Black officers police predominantly Black neighborhoods — researchers have found no evidence that community relations improve, or that police brutality rates decline.

That’s because police are paid to see their communities through the lens of the law enforcement bodies who employ them, with all those bodies’ institutionally violent, racist policies and cultural norms clouding the lens. And if they choose to view the people they police through the lens of a neighbor looking out for the safety of a fellow neighbor, experts say, they won’t be rewarded for it at work.

“Departments emphasize quantitative performance: metrics that place more value on crimes solved, arrests made, and tickets written than on harder-to-measure accomplishments, such as dangerous situations diffused or avoided,” wrote law professor Barbara Armacost in the Harvard Business Review. “By rewarding aggressive actions — which may even be dubbed heroic — this system undergirds a style of policing that can escalate police citizen confrontations.”

Better police training won’t fix traffic violence

To its credit, the NHTSA report does call out some of the ways that institutional policy sets cops up to fail pedestrians and cyclists, often from the day they enroll at the police academy. The researchers noted that the typical officer training program devotes just one week to studying the enforcement traffic laws, and often less than one hour to exploring “pedestrian and bicyclist laws or issues.”

But what the Administration seemingly doesn’t consider are the many safety downsides of creating more occasions for contact between civilians of color and cops over traffic enforcement — or whether such negative reinforcement would be better performed by a piece of inexpensive road infrastructure rather than a person with a gun and a badge.

Pulling a driver over for violating a cyclist passing law, for example, simply isn’t as effective as supplying cyclists with a protected bike lane that makes it physically impossible for a driver to threaten a cyclist’s life. And when it comes to enforcing failure to yield laws to keep drivers from running over walkers at intersections, a 2017 study found that the impact of expensive and labor-intensive “high visibility enforcement” efforts were “not statistically significant” — but road design interventions like lowering speed limits and using bump-outs to shorten crossing distances did work.

Nonetheless, the UNC report repeatedly suggests that a little officer training can cure almost all ills — and they even encourage police departments to make cops the trainers of school crossing guards. Only a few pages after admitting that law enforcement officers receive embarrassingly little training on “pedestrian issues,” and that cops have trouble interpreting “often nuanced and complicated” pedestrian laws, the researchers claim that “outreach during crossing guard training would allow enforcement to reiterate laws, regulations, and safe behaviors to share in the field.”

That’s a disturbing departure from the guidance of other safety groups like the Safe Routes to School Partnership, which recognized the problem with tasking poorly trained and often inherently biased cops with keeping kids safe on the streets, and removed police enforcement involvement from its official recommendations to program participants in June. In an interview with Streetsblog, the director of the group noted that the decision was easy, as “more and more groups [we work with] just don’t associate the police with safety.”

(The non-profit Safe Routes to School Partnership, it should be noted, is not the same as the National Center For Safe Routes to School, a federally-funded institute which is housed in the same University of North Carolina department that employs the authors of the NHTSA report; the government-backed Safe Routes group is still recommending law enforcement involvement in school transportation programs on its website.)

Thinking beyond the badge 

Throughout its report, NHTSA consistently fails to consider both how the legacies of police brutality have harmed public trust in policing as an institution, and how ill-equipped police departments are to perform the many and varied functions of maintaining a safe road network by their very nature — particularly for people of color and non-drivers for whom police brutality itself can be a barrier to mobility.

But the report authors seem hamstrung by the idea that police simply must perform all those functions — and failed to imagine a world beyond that dangerous status quo.

“In crash scenarios that include a pedestrian or bicyclist fatality or injury, law enforcement officers usually act as first responders, and within their role, conduct crash reporting and data collection, work with the victim’s family, and even respond to media requests,” said contributing author Kristin Blank in an email. “In developing this resource … we offer points of entry for officers to focus on pedestrian and bicyclist safety concerns, while respecting the values and needs of the community, illustrating how training, crash data reporting, collaborating with traffic engineers, and community engagement efforts, can all help advance road safety, and potentially help in building community trust and partnerships.”

That’s a long list of tasks to demand of any single professional — and many of them could arguably be better performed by departments that don’t have such a violent legacy in communities of color, much less ones that aren’t also tasked such a vast and varied range of safety responsibilities beyond the traffic realm.

Maybe we shouldn’t give cops the task of protecting pedestrians and cyclists on our streets from the ever-growing threat of traffic violence at all. Because too often, they’re the ones causing that violence, particularly towards non-whites — and when they’re not, it will still take way more than just enforcement to save our lives.


Kea Wilson is the senior editor at Streetsblog, where this story first appeared.

20 Comments

  • Witness la crosses over into self parody. Except for the length of this article, it could easily have been a “story” posted on the onion or the Babylon bee. Clown world nonsense.

  • No matter who it is riding or driving a vehicle , m/c or bike they are still responsible to obey the rules of the road, those who chose to disobey the was rules are to be held responsible for there actions, case in point , my grandson is a Deputy in a major agency observed and male riding his bike against traffic on a major street he was stopped by the officers he didn’t have a current drivers LIc, a record check was done to verify his ID well guess what he was on the FBI’s most wanted list!!!!

  • What the NHTSA understands is Law Enforcement does have a role in improving safety on our roadways through enforcement. They have decades of research that clearly indicate this fact. Many of our cities were developed with little thought of the current traffic hazards. Traffic safety engineers and local governments have few options available to them to improve safety through redesigning legacy roadway development due to costs.

    Even smart regulations of requiring cyclists to have lights and reflectors on their bike require, god forbid, enforcement. Law Enforcement has been a key factor in traffic safety for over a 100 years. This drivel you have written is dangerous.

    No doubt 10s of thousands of lives have been saved each year from appropriate and targeted enforcement.

    When surveyed in the 90s as part for Community Oriented Police efforts to understand what communities wanted, traffic enforcement was always at the very top in every community. Yes even communities of color.

    I find is somewhat ironic that a privileged white female with a Master in Fine Arts is questioning the NHTSA recommendations or the knowledge of Peace Officers regarding traffic safety. Her arrogance is astonishing.

  • Thanks, Kea! Great report by the NHTSA, but WHY are they telling us stuff we already know?

    It’s like saying you need lemons to make lemonade….

    Only a dum dum would say we don’t need cops to enforce the law.

  • How does WLA continue to win awards posting stuff like this? Just like the Oscars and numerous other trade group type awards, I guess it amounts to nothing more than an excercise by it’s members in self- congratulatory circle jerkery and celebratory ohs and ahs. It only means something for the initiated members as reflected by this piece and many others like it.

  • This douce bag is a cop hating pile of gutter trash as are Celeste and Taylor. Why else would this sorry as piece of drivel be here? Cops are getting shot and killed daily and not a word from the princess and princess jr.

    Par for the fucking course with their type.

    Remember Girlies, when the mob comes a knocking they aren’t going to give a fuck who you claim to support. Being friends with gangsters and some priest won’t mean shit. Find your safe space.

    • It just seems like every day to those who care about police officers. A rough count for this year via ODMP.org is 42 killed thus far via gunfire and felonious vehicle assaults. That’s a rate of 56 this year if the trend continues.

      Nobody should expect anything from a liberal publication except what they normally do:

      Vilify cops at every opportunity

      Canonize criminals like –

      George Floyd, 5 years in prison for home invasion robbery (gun to pregnant woman’s stomach “Where’s the drugs and money?”), and other stints in prison for armed robbery and possession of cocaine

      Jacob Blake, had warrant for raping a juvenile, fought police, armed with a knife, tried to steal a car – not being a good guy by breaking up a dispute between two women (lying attorney cover story)

  • FX…

    https://www.odmp.org/search/year/2020

    The OFD Memorial page has the following numbers.

    For 2020

    Total Line of Duty Deaths: 188

    9/11 related cancer 3
    Aircraft accident 1
    Assault 1
    Automobile crash 15
    COVID19 101
    Drowned 3
    Duty related illness 3
    Gunfire 33
    Gunfire (Inadvertent) 4
    Heart attack 5
    Motorcycle crash 2
    Struck by vehicle 7
    Vehicle pursuit 2
    Vehicular assault 8

    In your opinion these numbers may not matter but this amounts to over 20 law enforcement officers who have died this year each month. Police officers don’t only die in the line of duty due to gunfire. The effects of long term physical and mental stress and erratic working hours all take their toll and factor in law enforcement longetivity and mortality.

    Cherry picking statistics to suite your narratives and beliefs. Weak.

    • ” Cherry picking statistics to suite your narratives and beliefs. Weak. ”

      Including 101 deaths by Covid19 seems like cherry picking to suit your narrative, no occupation is immune from Covi19 .

      • Not sure how COVID -19 Deaths is a cherry picked statistic when it is a fact relating to law enforcement deaths? Its just a fact. I’m sure if these officers had the luxury of working from home, not having the option to social distance or draw unemployment and sit at home, they would not have not been in a position to be added into these statistics regarding law enforcement officer deaths.

      • Fx, limiting the counting of police deaths to “felonious incidents” (however that’s supposed to be determined) is rank cherry picking.so you’re using cherry picking in order to accuse someone else of cherry picking.

      • First off, for the last year I could find, 2016, there were over 57,000 on duty assaults on cops. Many of those are cops that are shot but I couldn’t find a break down of those shot but didn’t die. In 2016 64 were gunned down which was a raise from 41 in 2015, a 56% raise in one year.

        Geez, excuse me that I can’t absolutely prove my point but leave it for a cop hating asshole like yourself to jump all over it. This year about 1,600 have been injured, 3 killed in the insurrection by people your lame ass probably supports. Plenty around the nation have been shot and there have been multiple ambushes of officers. Try fucking looking things up. I’ve been involved in some of these events and these people are simple gutter trash and by the way have also caused many eye injuries to over 100 officers with their use of industrial type lasers.

        I realize you don’t give a fuck about cops being seriously injured or killed and are more concerned about the rights of felons with guns, rapists that fight cops and those who are stupid enough to resist lawful arrest and shoot it out with us and lose.

        Truly, I could care less what you and cop haters like you think about anything. I don’t play well with you weak ass people. The stats I gave you just now, were they “cherry picked?” Who was President when there was a 56% rise in the gunning down of cops, remind me?

        You’re one pathetic piece of work.

  • Hahahaha
    FX you’re amazing

    Do some research on what cherry picking actually means before you accuse someone of cherry picking.

  • Interesting when an organization like the NHTSA produces and releases a non-biased, non-political report only to face criticism for being for not including extraneous issues well beyond the purview of their report.

    Next thing you know, a report on the nutritional value of peanut butter will be criticized because it did not include the fact that it is the same color as some people’s skin thus (somehow) making it potentially offensive to a certain segment to our society.

  • Yet another example of how individuals will claw, grab, steal and just about kill to find “statistics, data and reports” to help bolster, support and justify their personnel agendas no matter how far removed said “statistics, data and reports” may be.

    I guess everybody is guilty “cherry picking” video clips, sound bites, excerpts from speeches, lines from reports, out of context quotes from speeches and number of officer deaths to support their personnel views and beliefs.

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