This is a bit of a Humpty Dumpty moment, attempting to reframe language in an Orwellian way that justifies law enforcement solutions to a complex social problem. According to Dictionary.com, the first definition of "accident" is "an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap: automobile accidents" (emphasis in original). The point of redefining terms isn't to hew to more correct usage but to allow police to maximally assign blame to drivers, ignoring the contributions of public policy decisions, traffic engineering, unintentional distractions and pure, dumb luck. But accidents DO happen and most car crashes - even preventable ones - occur unintentionally.
Etymology aside, the NHTSA campaign views traffic enforcement in general as a vast pretext for investigating other crimes by drivers, suggesting that "Proactive enforcement of traffic violations results in numerous criminal apprehensions. More significantly, the traffic stop is perceived by the officer and the community as positive. Even though a criminal apprehension may not result during most traffic stops, the officers and the community should not only view traffic enforcement as a safety benefit, but as another tool to be used in the War on Crime." Several years ago, Grits suggested that Supreme Court decisions allowing "pretext stops" would mean that "traffic enforcement will, over time, have less and less to do with ensuring traffic safety and more with getting around the Fourth Amendment." At the NHTSA, that prediction has now become public policy.
The reference by the NHTSA to pretext stops made me think of Google's driverless car and the recent suggestion by Volvo that they will produce driverless vehicles for sale in the US by 2020. A recent New Yorker column remarked that:
Google’s driver-less cars are already street-legal in three states, California, Florida, and Nevada, and some day similar devices may not just be possible but mandatory. Eventually (though not yet) automated vehicles will be able to drive better, and more safely than you can; no drinking, no distraction, better reflexes, and better awareness (via networking) of other vehicles. Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car, and even if you are allowed, it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.When that technological shift comes - and it's coming - how will that affect law enforcement agencies that have hinged their staffing and deployment decisions on the pretext stop strategy? In 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (pdf), 59.2% of all citizen contacts with police were traffic related. That year, police conducted searches at about 5% of traffic stops nationally, discovering contraband in about one out of every 10 searches. While most drivers (84.5%) thought they were pulled over for good cause, an overwhelming majority of drivers searched, said BJS, said the search was "perceived as not legitimate." Police arrested 2.6% of drivers they stopped that year.
When police no longer have traffic enforcement as a pretext for getting around the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement in this country will lose what's become a primary crime fighting strategy. In that sense, Grits views the focus on traffic enforcement and pretext stops as an example of short-term, numbers-driven myopia. Just as fishermen fish where the fish are, law enforcement focuses on traffic enforcement not just to prevent "crashes," but also because that's the most cost-effective way to maximize arrests for other offenses, allowing police to find contraband when they otherwise would have no cause to stop, much less search average citizens. For now that makes sense if their goal is to maximize arrests. But police seeking to maximize arrests in the future may have to rely on different tactics that today they tend to downplay, like investigating and solving reported crime.
Until then, Orwellian wordplay won't change the fact that virtually all car crashes are accidents by any reasonable definition. And until the cars are driving themselves, that will continue to be the case.
|NHTSA campaign logo|