Charlotte council discusses traffic deaths but ignores a big drop in speeding enforcement
The Charlotte City Council on Monday discussed its Vision Zero pledge, which calls for the elimination of traffic fatalities — for both people in vehicles and pedestrians.
The Charlotte Department of Transportation highlighted how it is trying to make streets safer, by installing flashing beacons at pedestrian crosswalks and mobile digital displays that show drivers how fast they are going.
And Maj. Dave Johnson of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department talked about the department’s enforcement on high-speed roads and the use of seatbelt checks and “saturation patrolling.”
He told council members that “the enforcement side is being addressed.”
But CMPD’s own data suggests otherwise.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police make dramatically fewer traffic stops than they did a decade ago. And as traffic enforcement fell, the number of fatalities increased.
From 2008-2012, the city averaged 39 traffic fatalities from vehicle crashes and pedestrians being hit.
Last year there were 81 fatalities. This year, the city is on pace to exceed that number, with at least 64 deaths as of Wednesday. (For perspective, there have been 71 homicides so far in Charlotte this year.)
It’s impossible to know if the increase in fatalities is due to a decline in traffic enforcement, but the decline in the number of citations written is dramatic.
Three years ago, WFAE wrote about the decline in speeding tickets written, noting that CMPD wrote one traffic ticket for every 22 people who lived in the city. That fell to about one ticket for every 68 people who lived in Charlotte in 2018.
In 2019, The Charlotte Ledger covered the trend as well. It reported that the department wrote 58,000 tickets in 2014 and that fell to 30,000 in 2018.
A WFAE story earlier this year noted that CMPD has continued to write fewer citations for all infractions, including traffic violations.
In 2009, CMPD wrote 97,000 citations for traffic violations and other offenses. That fell to 44,000 in 2018 before increasing to 55,000 in 2019. Last year they dropped again, to 33,000.
CMPD has pulled back for several reasons.
One is that the department says it’s focusing on roads and streets that have particular problems with speeding rather than a blanket approach across the city. Recent police chiefs — Johnny Jennings, Kerr Putney and Rodney Monroe — have focused on violent crime.
One CMPD deputy chief has said that it’s often too much paperwork to write someone for speeding. Officers must now create detailed records for each encounter with the public, and some officers say it’s sometimes not worth the trouble.
"When we went to body-worn cameras, you have to categorize your video after every interaction with somebody,” CMPD deputy chief Coerte Vorhees said in 2018.
And there’s another reason: A decline in what’s known as “proactive policing.” That means that if officers aren’t assigned to traffic duty, they may not stop someone for speeding. Officers have said they are wary of interacting with the public after incidents like the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police in 2016.
But during Monday’s meeting, CMPD’s role in enforcing traffic laws was mostly glossed over.
The department talked about what it’s doing, but not how much less it’s doing it. CMPD did not show council members statistics that show how many fewer traffic citations they are writing compared with a decade ago.
Council members said speeding is a huge concern for residents.
“Aside from the cost of housing, speeding, reckless speeding, the drag racing at night is probably the No. 1 issue I hear about from constituents,” said at-large council member Julie Eiselt. “It’s a real frustration that we don’t have a tool that’s making it very clear to people there will be a penalty if you run a red light.”
Eiselt was talking about a tool like red-light cameras, which the city used briefly more than a decade ago before their legality was challenged.
But what if one of those tools are Charlotte police? After all, there is a clear link between speed and the severity of wrecks.
The World Health Organization says this: “Speed also contributes to the severity of the impact when a collision does occur. For car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of (50 mph), the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact of (19 mph).”
At-large council member Braxton Winston, however, said traffic enforcement is not the answer.
“We know we can’t enforce our way out of this,” he said. “We built our way into this.”
He was referring to the city’s car-centric growth over the last 80 or so years, in which roads and streets were often built to move cars and trucks quickly.
Winston said that Charlotte’s roads need to be redesigned so people — like himself — can’t drive that fast.
Winston told council members that he had gotten a recent ticket on Sharon Road West for driving 54 mph in a 35-mph zone.
“Last week I got a speeding ticket on one of those high-injury networks — on Sharon Road West — the stretch between South Boulevard to Park Road, right before it turns into Gleneagles at Quail Hollow,” Winston said during the council meeting. “... You go a half-mile in one direction, yeah, you do have Quail Hollow. You have people that rely on vehicles. You go a half-mile in the other direction ... you have a light-rail station.”
“I would probably tell you that the way that you correlate will not work very well in that neighborhood. There are a lot of multifamily residents, working people, students, it’s not going to match. I will also say that giving people a speeding ticket on the network — you are not going to make that stretch safer for giving people 54 miles per hour in a 35.”
The Charlotte Ledger reported Wednesday that court records show Winston was also charged with driving 87 mph in a 65 mph zone in Cabarrus County in March 2020 and for driving 54 mph in a 35 mph zone in January 2016. He was also charged with failing to stop at a stop sign or flashing red light in December 2013.
In a follow-up interview, Winston said that Sharon Road West is designed for people to drive fast and that no amount of law enforcement can change that.
He said that periodic traffic enforcement might make the road safer briefly but not in the long-term.
Winston was asked about CMPD’s shift away from writing tickets. He said that if the council wants to direct the police to do more, that’s its right.
“But why is law enforcement the first thing we look to?” he asked. “We ask (police) to do an awful lot. We want them to be out in the community, not in their cars writing tickets.”
District 1 council member Larken Egleston said he agrees that the city’s roads can be better designed. He pointed to the recent opening of new separated bike lanes on Parkwood Avenue as a project worth copying throughout the city.
But he added: “I do think we need to see more enforcement.”