There’s a very troubling bill pending before the Montgomery County Council, which threatens the safety of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. The bill would prohibit county police from enforcing proper and required motor vehicle safety equipment.
The stated purpose of the bill, 12-23, sponsored by County Councilmember Will Jawando and co-sponsored by Councilmember Kristin Mink, is rather lofty: to (1) promote fairness to reduce racial disparities; (2) promote safety and reduce community trauma; (3) improve community policing relations; and (4) further the County’s Vision Zero goals. In fact, the bill would likely accomplish almost none of those goals and exacerbate many of the identified concerns. Among other things, the bill would prohibit police from stopping a driver for the following reasons:
Headlights. Headlights are a critical part of motor vehicle safety. They help motorists see the road and upcoming pedestrians, cyclists, and possible obstacles such as potholes or wildlife. They help pedestrians and cyclists see vehicles and take precautionary or evasive action. There are few more critical safety components for a car or truck. Allowing the police to stop a motorist for having malfunctioning headlights, or for simply failing to use them, deprives motorists and the public in general of the safety that headlights present.
Brake lights. The proper functioning of brake lights is also crucial for safety–not just for the driver of the vehicle, but for other drivers who might be following that car. It’s widely known that the addition of the third brake light in 1986 reduced rear-end collisions by 50%. The inability of police to advise a motorist that one or more brake lights are not functioning would deprive the motorist of a chance to avoid possible injury, as well as prevent the broader public from possible collision with that vehicle.
Driving with improper equipment. Residents are rightfully concerned about cars with loud, modified exhaust systems. It is already challenging to prevent and address these vehicles driving through neighborhoods. Imagine how much more frustrated residents will be when they call police to report these vehicles only to be told that the police may no longer assist with these calls.
Jaywalking. The bill would also prohibit the enforcement of jaywalking laws. Jaywalking laws primarily protect the pedestrian by encouraging the use of crosswalks, but also protect motorists from the consequence of collision with either the pedestrian or after taking evasive action. It is fair to have laws governing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike, and failing to have an enforcement mechanism available essentially legalizes dangerous behavior.
There are measures less punitive than a ticket available that can reduce the impact of a traffic stop while still ensuring that drivers use functioning and required safety equipment. The county could specify that an officer should simply provide a courtesy notice to the motorist. Or, the officer could issue a fix-it ticket, which would give the motorist a period of time to repair the vehicle and provide proof of repair.
Other states have annual vehicle safety inspection programs to help ensure that safety equipment is working. Maryland only requires inspection of motor vehicles once, upon the registration of a used vehicle. Even an annual safety inspection would not encourage the actual use of that equipment.
The desire to reduce discriminatory law enforcement is certainly laudatory. But preventing the police from enforcing motor vehicle safety equipment requirements, which serve to protect both the motorist and passengers, as well as the broader public, is overly corrective.
Moreover, while the bill purports to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops, it would do that without regard to the race of the members of the public whose safety would be threatened. The pedestrian who might be struck by a car without headlights could be of any race. The motorist who does not have notice that the car ahead is braking could be of any race. Federally required motor vehicle safety equipment protects drivers, motorists, pedestrians, and the general public without regard to their race. Bill 12-23 would choose to disregard the safety of the general public in order to purportedly “reduce community trauma” presented by the police stopping a motorist with malfunctioning equipment.
The Montgomery County police are some of the best trained, highly professional police officers in the country. We should expect that the value of our best-in-class recruiting and training programs will reap the desired benefits of ensuring that residents will be treated with respect and dignity in their engagements with the police. Preventing our police officers from notifying motorists of hazards that their vehicle presents to the public harms us all. The result of this bill would conflict with other priorities in the County, most notably the Safe Streets Act.
Darin Bartram is a longtime Kensington resident and is an attorney with a private practice in Washington, D.C.
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