In the race to reform policing, a few advocates and politicians have
recommended that New York City police be removed from traffic
enforcement. State Attorney General Letitia James, for example,
concluded that the NYPD should cease conducting noncriminal traffic
enforcement in her review of the department’s handling of the George
Brad Lander, a member of the city council and erstwhile safe-streets
advocate, proposed “removing NYPD officers from routine traffic stops”
for infractions such as speeding. He suggested that they “only enforce
driving behavior that visibly and immediately endangers public safety
(e.g., drag-racing, visibly erratic, aggressive, intoxicated, or
road-rage driving).” Others have recommended assigning the traffic-enforcement function to a new, unarmed enforcement agency, or have suggested increasing the use of automated enforcement tools like speed cameras to replace police.
These ideas are ill-considered and dangerous. Police traffic enforcement saves lives, reduces street disorder, and plays an important role in criminal investigations. The events of 2020, which disrupted the NYPD’s traffic enforcement, laid these facts bare.
The primary purpose of the NYPD in enforcing the traffic laws is to reduce crash-related injuries and fatalities. Before the pandemic, the department held regular “TrafficStat” meetings to ensure that its 77 precincts focused on this goal. These meetings, modeled after the department’s CompStat management accountability system, required precinct executives to meet with department leaders at police headquarters and explain their precincts’ responses to traffic safety problems. At these meetings, department bureau heads asked pointed questions to precinct executives about their enforcement at collision-prone locations, drunk-driving arrests, and approach to safety education and outreach. This forum ensured that officers enforce the right violations in the right places while focusing on the overarching goal of the department’s traffic strategy: injury reduction on the roads.
This process has been effective in focusing enforcement on violations that endanger road safety. In 2019, the department wrote 747,343 tickets for moving violations. Of those, 90.4% were for “hazardous violations”—offenses such as speeding, texting, and failing to yield to pedestrians. These are the violations that elevate the risk of crashes and injuries, according to department data. Equipment violations, which reformers often argue function as pretexts for police harassment,  accounted for just 3.1% of the tickets issued. These violations include minor infractions such as nonfunctioning lights. Given limited time and resources for traffic enforcement, it’s a department priority to concentrate its efforts on offenses that will reduce injuries.
focus matters. There is considerable evidence that police traffic
enforcement reduces crash injuries and fatalities. When the City of
Fresno Police Department increased the staffing of its traffic division
from 20 to 84 officers in 2003, officers wrote 229% more traffic
citations between 2002 and 2004. Injuries from collisions dropped 9.3%,
and fatal collisions fell 42%. In the surrounding county, enforcement
dropped 6%, while rates of injury collisions and fatal collisions did
not change. Research published in The Lancet showed that traffic convictions reduce
drivers’ relative risk of a crash in the period following their
Another study showed that after 35% of the Oregon State Police were
laid off in 2003, the subsequent drop in enforcement led to 11% and 17%
increases in injury and fatality crashes, respectively.
This is consistent with recent experience in New York City. In March 2020, the department shifted resources after the onset of the pandemic. A substantial percentage of officers also fell ill to Covid-19. Traffic enforcement plummeted. In April, officers wrote 14,290 tickets for moving violations, 85.2% fewer tickets than the 96,559 tickets they wrote in April 2019. In May, the department redeployed officers as a result of the protests following the murder of George Floyd. The agency did not return to regular levels of enforcement for the rest of the year.
From March 12 to December 31, 2020, the NYPD wrote 52.9% fewer tickets than it did during the same period in 2019. During that same period, fatal crashes spiked 16%, resulting in 31 more traffic deaths, compared with the previous year. In the first quarter of 2021, traffic enforcement was down 37.2%, when compared with the same period the previous year—and fatal crashes were up 9.7%, compared with the first quarter of the previous year. The change in traffic dynamics, however, confounds any analysis of this correlation. Mode share (travel by public transportation, automobiles, bicycles, and ferries) changed, vehicle miles traveled fell, and motor vehicle speeds increased. The increase in fatal crashes argues for more enforcement of dangerous driving behavior, not less.
The contemporaneous increase in street disorder in NYC reinforces this point. There have been several anecdotal reports of increased reckless driving and other road incivilities. Complaints of drag racing, in particular, increased during this period. After March 12, 2020, 911 and 311 complaints involving drag racing spiked 226%, with 8,450 total complaints for the rest of the year, versus 2,587 during the same period in 2019. All these behaviors demand police traffic enforcement.