Five years ago, right after state lawmakers passed a law to crack down on distracted driving, I got nabbed for it in a sting.
I was driving up Denny Way in Seattle, back toward my office, when a cop pulled me over. I was startled because as far as I knew, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“Three blocks back, you were talking on your cellphone,” he said. He pointed to the line of cars along Denny, “like in that one, see?” I looked, and sure enough — a driver idling at a red light was also on a phone, as I admittedly had been too.
The officer said the department was running an educational campaign, so my ticket for this first offense would be $136. “If I get you again, it’ll be double,” he said.
He hasn’t gotten me again. I’d like to say that’s because I’ve been a model citizen. But it’s probably due more to this: He isn’t really trying to get anybody anymore.
In 2018, I was one of about 28,000 Seattle drivers to get ticketed by police for a non-criminal driving infraction. In the 2010s, Seattle police doled out an average of roughly 40,000 tickets annually, more than 100 moving violation tickets a day.
The cops have all but stopped. They gave out only 3,863 tickets for 2022 — a drop of 90% from the 2010s pre-pandemic average.
I bring this up because city leaders have been expressing crisis-level concerns of late about the rise in traffic accidents and deaths in Seattle. Last year there were 28 deaths and 10,000 accidents, and the year before there were 30 deaths – the most in 15 years. This though the city is seven years into a safety campaign to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2030.
The city transportation department has done a review of why that “Vision Zero” campaign isn’t working. The 37-page report makes almost no mention of police enforcement — other than to say it’s out.
“Peer agencies are moving away from enforcement as a leading strategy, pointing instead to a safe systems model and designing roads to be ‘self-enforcing,’“ the report said.
“I don’t think any of us want police involved in traffic stops,” summed up Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales at a hearing last week, and no one disagreed.
Streets can definitely be made safer through design. A great example was the “road diet” of Rainier Avenue through Columbia City. Traffic bogs down there, but what used to a white-knuckle experience for pedestrians is now much more placid.
The council also signaled it plans to ramp up camera enforcement. (Currently cameras are used to catch red-light runners at select intersections, and to ticket speeders in school zones.)
But we’re in denial if we think we’re going to get to zero without the cops involved.
Example: In 2018, the year I got my cellphone ticket, there were more than 3,000 drivers like me tagged for driving while talking or texting. Last year that was down by about 80%. Does anyone believe texting behind the wheel has been nearly eliminated? Me neither. They just aren’t enforcing it anymore.
In 2018, the city charged 447 drivers with reckless driving, a criminal misdemeanor. Last year, there were only 149 – a 67% drop. Reckless driving really is down by two-thirds here?
“Pedestrian Deaths Spike in U.S. as Reckless Driving Surges,” reported a 2022 New York Times story.
Of course there have been serious problems with some cop stops over the years — with inequitable enforcement imposed on Black and brown people, or worse, when a stop goes haywire and leads to someone’s death. Police reform was supposed to address that. At the same time, though, you can’t catch texting or reckless drivers with cameras. Somebody’s got to pull them over.
Cameras could maybe help control speeding. Without them, the head of the city’s transportation department said they don’t know whether lowering speed limits has helped with safety or not.
“‘Hey you reduced the speed limit on all these arterials, but did it actually change driver behavior?’“ Greg Spotts said, relaying to the council one of the top questions he’s hearing from the public. “We’re going to have to do an analysis of that.”
I’m going to guess the answer will be “no” — it hasn’t changed driver behavior. That’s because drivers aren’t worried about getting caught.
The local writer Charles Mudede said the other day you can feel this Wild West sense walking about the city. Seattle is suffering from the “permitted lawlessness of cars,” he wrote, where “you can constantly break the vehicle laws with near impunity.”
The stats suggest there’s truth to that. I would only add that it’s by political choice. The city told the police not to meddle with the “lawlessness of cars” – and is still telling them that, see quotes above. So the police mostly don’t.
Seattle is a seesaw town. It wasn’t long ago we were America’s Singapore, a nanny state that might ticket you for anything from jaywalking to spitting to driving around with a noisy muffler.
Not sure where this seesaw is going to settle. But probably somewhere in the middle would be less confused, and hazardous, than this.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.