By Carmen Rivera, For the Reporter
As an elected official, it is my goal to balance sound policy that solves problems with a lens toward racial and economic equity so that everyone benefits. As a criminal justice educator, I understand the complexities behind pragmatic police reform efforts. In Renton, the rate of fatal accidents has been increasing since 2019 — an unfortunate trend taking place across the state. The Legislature is considering a bill, Traffic Safety for All (HB 1513), that would help solve this problem while supporting low-income drivers and reducing racial disparity. I urge lawmakers to pass this into law and help cities like Renton keep our roads safe.
We know what is causing these accidents. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), which studies collisions, found the leading causes of fatalities on the road are impaired driving, distracted driving, swerving, and speeding – these are all “moving violations.” The Washington State Patrol (WSP) has also found that 92% of DUIs were found through the enforcement of moving violations, which makes sense. Moving violations reflect risky driver behavior that puts other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians at risk. HB 1513 prioritizes focus of policing resources on enforcing moving violations and safety stops.
We also know what hasn’t been working. Ticketing for low-risk equipment violations or stops for expired tabs has been ineffective at solving the problem of safety on our roads. If a person can’t afford to fix a taillight, they can’t afford the ticket for a broken taillight. These tickets can lead to needless entanglement in the criminal legal system and further debt for people in poverty – while the taillight will probably still go unfixed. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.
HB 1513 provides a way to get low-income community members into compliance and avoid this poverty trap. It offers grant money that Renton and other cities could apply for to bring innovation and solutions to fixing cars and getting vehicles into compliance. Our city could begin offering fee offsets for annual tabs (which are more expensive in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties), taillight installation workshops, or car repair vouchers to take the burden off of families who are already struggling.
Opponents of the bill argue non-moving stops are a public safety tool and an opportunity for public education. The data shows otherwise. Non-moving violation traffic stops are an incredibly ineffective tool to fight crime. Data analysis from millions of WSP stops across the state show that officers find contraband in about a quarter of a percent (.27%) of stops. In other words, officers find no contraband in 99.7% of all traffic stops.
Yet, the social costs of these traffic stops and voluntary searches that go with them is immense. Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander drivers are about twice as likely as white drivers to be searched, even though contraband is more likely to be found on white drivers. Research shows that these stops, especially when paired with punitive fees on low-income people, can reduce public trust in the police, and even suppress voter turnout. The recent killing of Tyre Nichols reminds us that traffic stops, at their most severe, can result in needless violence against people of color. HB 1513 would limit the use of voluntary searches and irrelevant questioning, and require written consent to search, advancing our constitutional rights. This would help offset racial inequities and discrimination embedded in our criminal justice system.
I urge the Legislature to pass House Bill 1513, so that cities across Washington will benefit, as other cities in Connecticut and North Carolina have. We can have traffic safety and greater equity by making peoples’ needs a priority.
Carmen Rivera is an assistant teaching professor for Seattle University’s Department of Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Forensics and holds position 2 on the Renton City Council.