Don’t Ignore Racial Profiling in Traffic Stops
By Perry E. Thurston Jr.
There’s no doubt Florida needs a stronger law to address texting while driving. As a “secondary offense,” our current law does little to curb a practice that puts the lives of so many motorists and passengers at risk.
The Florida Legislature is poised to make the law a “primary offense,” meaning law enforcement can stop motorists and cite them specifically for texting while driving, something police now cannot do. The bill, SB 90, and its companion legislation, HB 33, are making its way through the legislature, and a final bill is expected to become law this year.
Stronger enforcement, the argument goes, saves lives. Unfortunately, the inequitable enforcement of well-meaning traffic safety laws has made it difficult, if not impossible, for many Black and progressive legislators to support changing Florida’s texting while driving law.
Too many Black and Hispanic motorists are being pulled over, cited and, in some cases, harassed, under the pretext of a traffic stop. If the enforcement of our state’s seat belt laws is any indication, then efforts to tighten the texting while driving law could lead to similar abuses. Racial profiling in traffic stops remains an issue that must be addressed.
A 2016 study on the application of the state’s seat belt law by the American Civil Liberties Union found police and sheriff’s deputies in Florida collectively stopped and ticketed Black motorists for seat-belt violations at a rate nearly double that of white motorists.
The study found that Black motorists in Palm Beach County were stopped and cited three times more often for seat belt violations than whites. The disparity was 2.8 times more often for black motorists in Orange County and 1.9 times more often for blacks in Broward County.
Those statistics may leave an impression that Black and Hispanic motorists are less likely to wear seat belts. That’s not the case. A 2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation found that Black and white motorists wore seat belts at fairly consistent rates.
Targeting certain communities for low-level offenses carries consequences. Black and brown residents resent the stigma of overzealous enforcement, which only undermines trust in law enforcement and their efforts to improve public safety.
In an effort to pass traffic-stop legislation that saves lives and ensures the fair enforcement, I have proposed an amendment to the Senate bill that ensures a collaborative approach to address the concerns of both law enforcement and the citizens they serve.
The amendment would require law enforcement agencies to record information regarding the ethnicity and race of the motorist cited for violating the state’s seat belt and texting while driving laws. The documentation is critical in helping law enforcement agencies more effectively use their resources to promote traffic safety, and it gives communities greater confidence and oversight in how well local police departments and sheriff’s offices are applying traffic laws.
Clearly motor vehicle crashes continue to be a problem. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of nearly 100 persons died each day in motor vehicle crashes in 2015, which works out to be about one fatality every 15 minutes. What’s more disturbing is that the trend is showing signs of more fatalities.
Florida needs better traffic laws to help make our roadways safer. The traffic-stop documentation is equally important to ensure that the stronger laws are not only effective, but fair and equitably applied.
Perry E. Thurston Jr. is a Democrat who represents the 33rd District in the Florida Senate.