Low-Level Traffic Stops Are Ineffective—and Sometimes Deadly. Why Are They Still Happening?

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Mar 29, 2023

On January 27, the city of Memphis released footage of police officers beating Tyre Nichols to death following a traffic stop. In the weeks that followed, legislators in Memphis and jurisdictions across the country introduced bills that would shift police away from pulling people over for low-level violations that do not impact road safety, like driving with a broken taillight, expired tags, or window tint.

The renewed push to examine the underlying logic of low-level traffic stops may have been sparked in part by Nichols’s murder, but it was grounded in data. Every year, police make more than 20 million traffic stops for alleged traffic violations, but many of these stops involve low-level allegations and have little to no benefit to safety. A Vera report issued last summer found that in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, roughly a third of traffic stops were for minor alleged infractions that did not impact road safety.

Police often argue that low-level stops, and the searches they conduct during those stops, allow them to root out dangerous crime by identifying guns and drugs. But data shows that searches that begin with traffic stops seldom yield contraband. Moreover, police stop Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, and some are stopped over and over again for minor violations. Philando Castile was pulled over a staggering 49 times before police killed him during a 2016 traffic stop in Minnesota. That kind of harassment, particularly when targeted along racial lines, leads to alienation.

Repeated stops also place Black drivers in situations in which they are at risk of physical, economic, or psychological harm. That includes the possibility that a stop may escalate into violence, as it did for Nichols, Castile, and many others. Between 2016 and 2021, police killed over 400 drivers or passengers who were unarmed and were not being pursued for a violent crime, and an outsized proportion were Black. That’s an average of one person per week.

A number of jurisdictions have already adopted policies that limit police stops for minor infractions. Since 2020, Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Seattle; Mecklenberg County, North Carolina; and Berkeley, California, have all implemented policies to limit or eliminate stops for minor traffic violations. Two jurisdictions made statewide changes: Virginia and Oregon.

“It should be clear to anyone who has examined the evidence that this is not only a sensible policy change that benefits everyone from drivers to police, but also one with virtually no downside,” explained Vera’s director of government advocacy Marta Nelson. “We have years of real-world evidence showing that this is good for racial equity, public safety, and traffic safety.”

The push to steer policing away from low-level traffic stops has a big-tent coalition behind it, underscoring the commonsense nature of the reforms. Among supporters of legislative action are the usual groups—community organizations concerned with racial equity, family members of people killed by police during minor traffic stops, civil liberties groups, and Vera, which testified in support of bills in Washington and Memphis this year—alongside the unusual: the American Automobile Association (AAA) supports reprioritizing traffic stops and reducing or eliminating consent searches during stops. But AAA, an organization with a vested interest in traffic safety and a robust database of traffic records, says supporting the bill was a logical choice.

“These kinds of policies will help to achieve greater racial equity in traffic enforcement, will drive down traffic fatalities, allow law enforcement agencies to more efficiently direct the resources that they have available to them, and will have no measurable impact on non-driving related crime,” AAA spokesperson Jacob Nelson testified before the Washington House this winter.

Fayetteville, North Carolina, shows stops don’t build safety

Traffic stop reforms have proven to be successful where implemented. One of the first jurisdictions to stop pulling over drivers for low-level violations was Fayetteville, North Carolina, which provides proof of concept for these kinds of changes. In 2010, Fayetteville police searched three times as many Black drivers following traffic stops as they did white drivers, leading to many community members feeling as though they were subject to racial profiling by the police. “That is not a good feeling. It is not. It is almost like we live in South Africa,” resident Barbara Carraway told WRAL News in 2011.

Harold Medlock became the city’s police chief in 2013 and directed his officers to stop pulling drivers over for minor infractions that did not pose a safety threat, measuring the results. Fayetteville also passed a law requiring that officers obtain written consent to conduct a search during a traffic stop, as drivers often do not know they have the right to refuse.

These policies, and Medlock’s attention to their implementation, changed policing habits. One report found that racial disparities in traffic stops fell once the changes were implemented. The number of crashes and traffic deaths dropped, too. The overall crime rate for non-traffic crimes fell or remained static, countering the argument that enforcing a dragnet of low-level traffic builds public safety. And the number of searches fell precipitously with the requirement of written consent.

While similar changes in other jurisdictions are newer, and thus have less data, the results are promising. For example, after Philadelphia instituted its policy on low-level stops, stops for these violations involving Black men went down 54 percent. While racial disparities remain stubbornly high in Philadelphia’s stops, this overall reduction nevertheless signals that the policy is having one intended effect of reducing unnecessary encounters between drivers and police.

High costs and little benefit

Frank Baumgartner, a professor at the University of North Carolina, was one of the lead researchers on the Fayetteville study. He says his research on traffic stops and policing, both in Fayetteville and jurisdictions nationwide, points to basic questions that the data answers time and again. “You know, it's child's play for the police to make a lot of arrests. But then, what's the point? Is that making us safer?” he said.

According to Baumgartner’s research, it does not. He has found that just three percent of traffic stops lead to a search, roughly 20 percent of searches lead to a “hit” (the discovery of contraband), and 50 percent of “hits” lead to an arrest—meaning just about 0.3 percent of stops yield an arrest for contraband. Similar results repeat themselves time and again in jurisdictions across the country—a study in Nashville found that low-level traffic enforcement was not effective at stopping crime; Philadelphia found that just 1 percent of stops turned up contraband; and in Tacoma, Washington, data shows a hit rate of less than one percent. Those rates amount to a needle-in-a-haystack approach to finding drugs and guns.

Such an approach carries multiple costs. One is opportunity: when police stop someone for non-safety reasons, they are prioritizing that intervention over more dangerous behavior, like drunk or reckless driving. After pulling people fewer people over for non-safety infractions, police in Fayetteville made more stops for violations that endangered public safety and the number of crashes went down.

“The traffic safety element of law enforcement is being diluted by the war on drugs and war on crime—to no strong benefit in terms of [preventing] crime or [keeping] addictive drugs from the community—but to a really high and under-estimated cost in terms of humiliation, anger, and frustration,” Baumgartner said.

One of the most striking findings from Fayetteville was that the number of 911 calls went up following the shift away from policing non-safety traffic violations, suggesting that overpolicing may have deterred community members from calling emergency services.

“Police intrusions can be quite scary [and], if not scary, at least humiliating and frustrating. So, I think we need to put a number on that emotional trauma and recognize how great that is many communities,” said Baumgartner. “Put a number on the cost of alienating a [person]. Whatever the number might be, just don't count it as zero. Recognize that it is a little chink in the armor of democracy. There should be a little cost every time you search somebody and come up with nothing.”

Other jurisdictions following suit

Legislation to stop these unnecessary stops is advancing nationwide. Last month, Vera collaborated with County Councilmember Will Jawando in Montgomery County, Maryland, who introduced a bill that would limit traffic stops for low-level offenses and create new requirements to initiate consent searches of a vehicle. The Memphis City Council is also considering changes to police traffic stops in the wake of Nichols’s murder, which Vera testified in support of. In Connecticut, the state legislature is considering a bill that would refocus police time away from low-level stops. And this spring, Vera will convene partners and interested officials at the state and local level who are committed to adopting limitations on minor traffic stops in their home jurisdictions.

“We have seen too many people suffer the harms of traffic stops, and the pace of police reform has not been fast enough to keep up,” said Marta Nelson. “But it’s clear that this policy delivers swift change that diverse constituencies can get behind. We’re hopeful that as this momentum builds, more people will realize that if they want an immediate and viable response to this problem, targeting low-level stops is a good path forward.”