A driver’s license is a rite of passage. Unfortunately for many drivers, so too is one’s first traffic ticket. Indeed, some surveys suggest one-fourth of all adult drivers have gotten traffic tickets in last five years.
The introduction of autonomous vehicles onto U.S. roads is expected to disrupt everything from the way freight is shipped to how safe we are on our commutes. But less attention has been given to how their arrival could reduce the number of traffic stops dramatically.
It’s safe to say the first wave of autonomous vehicles are not far off, but projecting the precise timeline along which AVs will develop is challenging. Early models will be similar in concept and capability to the vehicles Uber already operates in Pittsburgh. These systems will continue to have steering wheels and pedals and will still require occasional operator involvement. While fully autonomous vehicles may eliminate traffic stops altogether, these amalgam piloted cars with blended operational control will most certainly change the status quo and reduce the need for police to pull people over.
The prospect of even a marginal reduction in the number of traffic stops could prove an inflection point for criminal justice public policy, given that traffic stops are among the most common interactions between the American people and their government. In 2011, the last year for which Bureau of Justice Statistics are available, half of all police interactions were related to traffic stops. In other words, 31.5 million Americans had an interaction with the police related to a traffic stop in that one year alone.
If autonomous vehicles realize only a fraction of their projected safety benefits, a decline in the number of traffic stops would be virtually inevitable. Among the consequences of this change would be fewer traffic tickets issued, the average cost of which is $150. Traffic-related violations are so common that local governments across the nation currently count on the revenues generated by these encounters to fund basic operations.
It’s also possible that fewer stops could help break the cycle for members of poor communities who get caught in the criminal justice system. Optimistically, this could have the effect of improved relationships between these communities and the police sworn to protect them.
A basic principle in criminal procedure, laid out in the seminal case Terry v. Ohio, is that police can seize citizens for a limited time if they have reasonable suspicion that crime is “afoot.” This tenet has been expanded to traffic stops. When an officer sees a speeding car, he has reasonable suspicion that at least one crime has occurred — speeding.
Combined with pretextual stops — in which officers have ulterior motives for the stop, typically when they want to investigate a crime but lack sufficient cause for seizure — we have the recipe for a powder keg of tension between police and the populace. Minorities, who systematically have been subject to a disproportionate percentage of traffic stops, see the practice as good old-fashioned racism. For their part, law enforcement sees aggressive stops as good policing, pointing to Timothy McVeigh and other high-profile cases that were solved due to basic traffic enforcement.
Beyond the sheer decline in the number of stops — pretextual or otherwise — autonomous vehicles also will record their passengers’ movements. As a result, the “evidence” of traffic violations, or lack thereof, will be beyond contest. Complaints of racial profiling could be settled quickly with a review of a vehicle’s computer to see if a moving violation occurred. The same would hold true in traffic court, where judges likely would throw out citations where a driver can offer definitive proof that no violation occurred.
Autonomous vehicles are coming and their emergence will change the landscape of policing. It’s impossible to project all the ways these changes will affect society and the legal system, but the future certainly looks different.