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A fatal crash shows us everything that’s wrong with traffic enforcement

Amid rising traffic deaths, legal mechanisms designed to keep streets safe are breaking down. Is there a better way?

Police gather at the scene of a crash in Washington DC in March that left a Lyft driver and his two passengers dead. The other vehicle involved had 49 outstanding citations, leading to public outcry that not enough had been done to keep the driver off the roads.
Robert Devaney/The Georgetowner Newspaper
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

“Is there a reason we’re driving, like, 80 mph, blowing red lights?” the police officer asked the driver of the black Lexus SUV, according to his body camera footage. It was just after 1 am on a March night in Washington, DC, and there were two people in the car he had just pulled over. The officer noticed a cup of what appeared to be liquor in the passenger’s hand and informed them that having an open container of alcohol was illegal. He asked to see their IDs. Moments later, the driver sped off.

The officer didn’t chase the Lexus. Like the guidelines of many other police organizations across the United States, his department’s rules dictated that officers give chase only when they believed a felony was being committed or a driver was a “clear and immediate” threat to the public.

Less than two minutes passed before emergency responders received their first call reporting a crash involving the Lexus. Multiple witnesses on Rock Creek Parkway — a wide, winding road at the city’s western edge — told police what they saw. The Lexus, driving at a high rate of speed after fleeing the police stop, crossed into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a Honda sedan, killing Lyft driver Mohamed Kamara, 42, and his passengers Olvin Torres Velasquez, 22, and Jonathan Cabrera Mendez, 23. The driver of the Lexus and her passenger survived.

In the aftermath of the crash, disturbing details emerged about the driver and her car. According to a police detective investigating the crash, the Lexus was traveling 100 mph in the moments before it collided with Kamara’s car. (Vox contacted Park Police multiple times with requests for comment, but a spokesperson declined to comment while the investigation was ongoing; details about the crash were obtained via court records, testimony, and news reports.) The driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.10, according to reporting from the Washington Post, above the legal limit. Records of previous infractions caught on traffic cameras showed that the Lexus had 49 outstanding citations, and owed $17,280 in fines. Nearly all of them were for speeding, according to a Vox search of the car’s DMV records, and many occurred in the months before the crash. In May, when police charged the driver with second-degree murder in connection with the deaths of the three men, court records revealed that she had three prior DUI convictions in DC, in 2015, 2018, and 2020, and two more in Virginia. The driver technically shouldn’t have had a valid license at all; a driver with three DUI convictions within 15 years is supposed to have her license revoked for at least three years. However, because of a failure in communication between the courts and the DMV, the agency received the notifications of her convictions but never revoked her license. The case against the driver is now pending.

In a city already experiencing a sharp increase in road fatalities since 2019, the crash sparked “outrage over whether city officials were doing enough to keep bad drivers off the road,” the Washington Post noted. DC’s specific challenges with enforcing traffic safety may be unique, but the broader problem is not: Across the country, the legal mechanisms intended to keep roads safe are failing. In 2021, 42,939 people died in traffic crashes, the highest number recorded since 2005. In 2022, another estimated 42,795 people were killed. During the same period, police in several jurisdictions across the country significantly limited the number of traffic stops they performed.

According to a 2021 survey of over 1,000 police officers, nearly 60 percent said they were less likely to stop a vehicle for violating traffic laws than they were prior to 2020, when the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police inspired nationwide protests over police brutality, and the pandemic disrupted usual enforcement practices. The survey results line up with data from cities and states: In San Diego, police stops dropped by roughly 50 percent between 2019 and 2022. In Vermont, they fell 40 percent in 2020. In Seattle, the number of traffic citations issued dropped 86 percent between 2019 and 2023. In St. Louis, Missouri, the police issued about half as many traffic tickets in 2021 than they did in 2009; traffic deaths, meanwhile, doubled during that time, from 39 in 2009 to 81 in 2020. In Austin, the number of traffic citations issued by police dropped 90 percent between 2017 and 2021. At the same time, Austin’s traffic deaths reached record highs.

The reasons behind the decline in traffic stops are complex. Police departments across the country are experiencing staffing shortages. In DC, police are experiencing the worst such shortage in 50 years. An investigation by an NBC affiliate found that DUI arrests in DC and Virginia had fallen dramatically between 2010 and 2021, while DUI-related deaths had risen 33 percent. Officials also are citing the pandemic and protests over the murder of Floyd as reasons for pulling back on enforcement, and meanwhile, in response to public outcry over policies that have unfairly targeted Black drivers, lawmakers in cities across the country have passed new legislation limiting what police can pull drivers over for.

The fact that traffic stops are decreasing while deaths are rising doesn’t necessarily mean that one is causing the other, because correlation does not equal causation, as any good statistics teacher will tell you. Urban planners and safety advocates say that addressing deadly road design and vehicle size is ultimately the best way to ensure road safety, while noting that police traffic stops are at best imperfect, and at worst a dangerous method of enforcement. Some experts, however, think there’s an obvious link. Enforcement efforts that are high-visibility and focused on safety are shown to reduce risky driving. Experts believe the opposite might also be true.

“Why do many of us drive dangerously on the roads? Because we think we can get away with it,” Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which tracks traffic fatalities across the country, told NPR earlier this year. “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.”

Safety advocates note that while efforts to reform discriminatory, outdated traffic enforcement practices are important, most cities and states haven’t replaced it with a better system. An improved one would take equity and safety into account, recognizing that Black, Indigenous, and people of color are disproportionately more likely to be killed in traffic crashes than white people.

“We’re at a pivot point from the way it was to the way it will be in the future. We, as a community, are trying to figure out what we need to change in order to preserve the benefits from traffic enforcement but to correct systemic problems we see,” Russ Martin, GHSA’s senior director of policy and government relations, told Vox.

That’s what Ryan Calder, a professor of environmental health and policy at Virginia Tech, found when he started looking into the crash in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. Calder, a DC resident, said he was outraged by the clear evidence that the Lexus driver was a public safety risk, that nothing had been done to get her off the road, and that lives were lost as a result. Calder found that the city had extremely limited capacity to go after people who were repeatedly caught driving dangerously, but also that legislation considered by DC’s leaders that would have made it harder for a repeat offender to renew a license was rejected because of concerns that it might disproportionately impact low-income people or people of color — like other policies that lawmakers and activists have been working to reform. In progressive communities, Calder says, the enforcement element of road safety tends to get overlooked or treated with skepticism, which he understands, to a point. “People don’t talk about it because it’s taboo,” he says. “You don’t want to ruin people’s livelihoods because they owe $50 in parking tickets. I completely agree.” But a driver with repeated speeding and drunk-driving violations, he says, “is a whole other magnitude — you should use their history to go after these drivers.”

Calder wrote about his findings, and the research backing it, to DC Council members and other leaders in an open letter co-signed by nine local organizations including local chapters of Families for Safe Streets, and 650 individuals. (Disclosure: One of the signees is an employee of Vox Media.) He wrote that the city, by failing to prioritize enforcement effectively, was “exacerbating the grievous injustices of traffic violence; lower income and racialized individuals are at vastly higher risk of fatality and injury as compared to the population as a whole.”

Calder’s findings were specific to DC, but they offer a picture of what a more just enforcement system focused on safety could look like in other cities and states contending with dangerous drivers. They urge leaders to use the data gathered from traffic cameras to target repeat offenders. In New York, after a driver with eight prior violations for speeding and running red lights struck and killed two children in 2018, the city passed a law that would require any driver whose vehicle is caught multiple times on camera speeding or running red lights to take a traffic safety course or risk having their car impounded. The three-year program, the first of its kind in the country, attempts to target drivers who repeatedly engage in risky behavior and change their behavior without leveraging fines. If successful, it could become permanent. In DC this summer, the city experimented with sending text messages and mailers to what they deem are “high risk” drivers, warning them that they are in danger of a crash. “If we find that they were successful, the District may choose to continue them in subsequent years,” Sam Quinney, the director of The Lab, a research team within DC’s government that spearheaded the program, told Vox in a statement. Critics argue that the proposal isn’t drastic enough given the scale of the problem and that the city should boot cars with repeated violations caught on camera — an idea one City Council member has advocated for in proposed legislation, along with suggesting that drivers charged with drunk driving, negligent homicide, or leaving the scene of a crash have their licenses suspended while awaiting adjudication in the courts.

Calder’s letter also proposes that local agencies crack down on the use of fake temporary license plates, or temporary tags, which have proliferated on the streets of New York, DC, and other major cities in the last few years. Available for sale on Craigslist and other online marketplaces, they allow drivers to evade getting caught for speeding because they aren’t officially registered to a vehicle, and are therefore untraceable to the drivers. Eliminating them could ensure that drivers are able to be held accountable for being reckless behind the wheel.

In theory, traffic cameras should be a major asset in helping enforce safe streets — research shows that drivers slow down, and have fewer crashes, when they’re present. Crucially, they don’t involve police officers, eliminating the potential for risky interactions between drivers and law enforcement. In European countries where automated enforcement is widespread and penalties are enforced, the road fatality rates are far lower than they are in the United States. But in the US, traffic cameras have sparse coverage and are controversial, and can, in some cases, end up disproportionately ticketing Black and brown drivers. Getting more of them on the streets, in different neighborhoods, could help reduce those concerns, and using the money generated by cameras to fund safer streets in those communities would help, too. Fines could be based on a person’s daily wages, rather than flat fees, to make them more equitable, as is the case in several Scandinavian countries — and penalties could involve more booting and towing vehicles.

Those changes wouldn’t bring back Kamora, Velasquez, and Mendez, the victims of the crash in Rock Creek Park. Nor would they bring back the countless other people killed on US roadways in 2023. But targeting the deadliest drivers, and getting them off the road, experts say, should be a goal shared by government leaders and road users alike. Caring about the victims of our deadly roads is just the first step.