February 24, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Norton Statements from Hearing on Equity in Transportation Safety Enforcement

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) during today’s hearing titled, “Examining Equity in Transportation Safety Enforcement.” Video of DeFazio and Norton’s opening statements are here and here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Madam Chair, for holding today’s hearing to examine the equity implications of the most prevalent methods to enforce traffic safety laws.

This is a complex and important issue that we cannot ignore. With this hearing, the Committee is raising awareness of the need to improve accountability in transportation safety enforcement and taking the first steps to ensure that Federal transportation safety funds elevate safety while maintaining the rights of every American.  

The Highways and Transit Subcommittee authorizes hundreds of millions of Federal dollars on an annual basis to help States and communities make roads safer. We measure the success of safety programs, in large part, by how many traffic-related fatalities occur each year. As the former Chairman of this Subcommittee, I can tell you that number has been too high for too long.

Some may point to the fact that the rate of traffic fatalities per vehicle miles traveled has decreased during our lifetime and say we’ve done our job. I say that’s unacceptable. To put it in context for you—in 1994 we lost 40,716 lives on our roadways. In 2019, we lost 36,096. I’d say we have a lot more work to do.

We still lose an average of 100 lives per day due to motor vehicle crashes. What’s worse, the majority of these crashes are entirely preventable. Year after year the leading cause of car crashes is human behavior: excessive speed, drunk driving, and distraction.

For decades, enforcement of safety laws through traffic stops has been a cornerstone of traffic safety. This Committee provides over $600 million annually for traffic safety grants to States, a portion of which is spent on law enforcement activities. These funds are intended to be spent deterring dangerous driving behaviors such as speeding or not wearing a seat belt.

However, we know that far too often individuals are stopped for reasons other than traffic safety violations. Not only is this a misuse of law enforcement resources that are meant to enhance safety, it’s unconstitutional. As we will hear from witnesses today, the misuse of traffic stops—due to conscious or unconscious bias, or worse, racial profiling—has to be addressed head on.

There is no doubt that systemic racism exists in this country. It is a cancer that has been ignored and allowed to grow and divide out of control. Systemic racism has excused the criminality of the wealthy, white, and well-connected, while being overly punitive toward people of color and the marginalized. We must recognize that ensuring safety on our roadways means not only protecting people from dangerous drivers but protecting people of color from enforcement abuses as well.  

Last year, this Committee advanced H.R. 2 the Moving Forward Act, which included several provisions aimed at addressing disparities and increasing transparency in traffic safety enforcement.

First, as Chair Norton discussed, H.R. 2 reauthorized and made improvements to the Section 1906 grant program to provide grants to States for collecting data on racial profiling during traffic stops. Twenty-three States have applied for and received these funds since the program’s inception in 2006, including my own State of Oregon.

Further, H.R. 2 included an implicit bias research and training grant program which would provide funds to universities for research and training of law enforcement to identify implicit bias during traffic stops. Today we will hear testimony on how both of these tools can be used to address racial disparities in traffic safety enforcement.

I thank our witnesses for being here and look forward to hearing additional steps we can take to improve equity and transparency in traffic safety enforcement.

Chair Norton:

Welcome to today’s hearing. We will be discussing the use of enforcement to promote traffic safety and the equity implications of it. This is the first Subcommittee on Highways and Transit hearing of the 117th Congress, which shows the importance of this issue and my commitment to making our highways and roadways safer and free from discrimination for all users. 

This Subcommittee authorizes funding for States, Tribes and U.S. Territories to pursue traffic safety efforts through the State and Community Highway Safety Program, commonly referred to as “Section 402.” We also authorize tiered grants aimed at addressing national traffic safety priorities, commonly referred to as “Section 405.” States can spend their traffic safety funds on a variety of activities, such as community education and outreach on the importance of using seat belts or improvements to State traffic record databases. States can also spend their funds on enforcement of traffic safety laws. A large portion of State traffic safety grants go to law enforcement agencies.  In fiscal year 2018, States spent over $200 million of their Section 402 and Section 405 funds on law enforcement. 

It is estimated that more than 20 million drivers are pulled over each year, making traffic stops one of the primary interactions between the public and law enforcement, so it is crucial we understand how, and against whom, traffic safety laws are enforced. Today, we will hear witnesses describe not only the impacts of traffic safety enforcement, which disproportionately affect people of color, but methods to improve trust between communities and law enforcement to bring about safe, equitable and just outcomes in these interactions.

We will also hear about the importance of using traffic safety resources to address problems that lead to injuries and deaths—such as impaired driving—rather than for traffic stops that are used as a sweeping tool to interact with communities. Targeting resources is necessary to ensure that we actually move the needle on traffic safety. 

I am especially interested to hear testimony from Ken Barone of Central Connecticut State University. He is the Program Manager of the State of Connecticut’s Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, which is supported by a grant program I championed to prohibit racial profiling, known as Section 1906, that has been a great success. It is my understanding that other States are seeking to replicate the Connecticut model, so I am very much looking forward to hearing more about that program. 

Thank you all for participating in today’s hearing, and I look forward to learning more about what this Committee can do to ensure that traffic safety enforcement is both fair and safe for all Americans.