Policing the Open Road

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
On July 10th, 2015, a police officer in Prairie View Texas pulled over a 28-year-old black woman named Sandra Bland.

Sarah Seo:
She was pulled over for turning without signaling, which is a common infraction that police use to stop people in their cars today.

Roman Mars:
This is Sarah Seo, professor at Columbia Law School

Sarah Seo:
And the traffic stop quickly turned hostile. There was confrontation between the officer about her smoking in her car. And the officer got upset.

Roman Mars:
Many of you have probably seen footage of this arrest. It is very disturbing. The officer drags Bland out of the car and threatens her with a taser. He then arrests her and takes her to jail where she tragically dies three days later. Bland’s death was ruled a suicide, but her treatment at the hands of the police sparked outrage across the country. About a year later, the magazine “The Nation” published an article trying to analyze everything that went wrong leading up to her arrest. They focused not just on the incident itself, but her entire life’s history. Her experiences with unemployment, poverty, and mental illness.

Sarah Seo:
And when I read the article in “The Nation” about Sandra Bland’s biography, one thing that stood out to me was every moment in her life where she experienced a setback happened in the context of her car where the police stopped her in her car for a traffic violation, a parking violation that she couldn’t afford to pay and so she sat out in jail, or because the police found marijuana in her car that she was using to self-medicate her mental health issues. And so for me, I saw the car as this important character in itself in the systematic ways that black people are discriminated against, treated unequally in the justice system.

Roman Mars:
Sarah Seo’s new book is called “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom” and it’s basically a historical analysis of how we got into this situation—where police have so much power over people in their cars, where black and brown people are stopped and searched disproportionately, and where a minor traffic violation like failing to use a turn signal can have deadly consequences. Seo brilliantly connects the history of modern policing with the history of the car. It’s a riveting read and an important book for this moment and I wanted to talk with Professor Seo about it. We started 100 years ago, at the dawn of the automotive age.

Sarah Seo:
All of a sudden, there were hundreds and thousands of mass-produced cars on streets that were not meant for them. These streets were intended for pedestrians. Children played in the streets, trolleys, a few horse-drawn carriages that could be afforded by the wealthy. And to suddenly have dozens and then hundreds and then thousands of cars on these streets created chaos and it created traffic.

Roman Mars:
So what did we do to respond to the safety issues that were the result of thousands of cars being thrown onto city streets that were not designed for cars?

Sarah Seo:
So we have to think back to a time before the rules of the road became standardized, there was no moral census telling us what are the norms of driving on the road, right? And so local governments, when they addressed the traffic problems, had to set about passing a lot of laws setting forth norms so that everybody drove uniformly because that was the best way to achieve safety on the road.

Roman Mars:
Right. And there were so many of these new laws that it ended up being pretty confusing, especially because they varied state to state and county to county, and so local governments needed to really work to get people to understand these laws and follow them.

Sarah Seo:
Yeah, and they tried a mix of old ways of responding to social problems while searching for new solutions because a car was an innovation that they had not experienced before. And so some of the old ways that they tried to respond was through private voluntary actions. Ministers in churches gave sermons on safety Sunday, exhorting their congregants to obey traffic laws. They also had schoolboys, preferably Boy Scouts, direct traffic near schools. Washington, D.C. even had women volunteer to manage traffic and report traffic violations. And so some of the old ways of governing relied on private citizens and volunteers to try to maintain order on the streets. But these were ineffective and they were ineffective because average citizens who owned and drove cars refused to obey traffic laws. They kept breaking them. And one of the most common laws that they broke were speeding limits, which was the number one contributing factor to accidents. And so, they realized relying on old ways of governing people, relying on their sense of honor to obey the laws, wouldn’t work. And so they started shifting towards police, law enforcement

Roman Mars:
And the police at this time were not what we think of today. Police forces were really small, the officers weren’t really trained for the job. They were often in plain clothes and maybe had a little tin star, almost like a nightwatchman or something. And they weren’t really in the business of policing the kind of upper-middle-class, otherwise law-abiding people who were all of the sudden driving around in cars and breaking all these new traffic laws.

Sarah Seo:
Exactly. Exactly. And so what local governments throughout the country realized was that trying to enforce the law against normally law-abiding citizens, the respectable members of society, required somebody with more authority. It required somebody with good judgment, it required somebody who knew the laws, right? To stand head to head and toe to toe with the respectable members of society, even the wealthy ones who drove their cars too fast. And what they realized is that they needed police officers to be professionals.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sarah Seo:
And so we see because of automobiles, a shift to professionalize and modernize police departments who couldn’t be bribed, who were smart enough to learn all the laws, who were tall enough. There was actually a height requirement so that they can stand above the cars and people could see their directions managing traffic. And so we see how the police profession itself becomes more specialized and exclusive out of necessity, because of the need to discipline drivers.

Roman Mars:
So was the decision to involve the police in all this at all controversial? I mean, today we take for granted that police who enforce traffic laws. But was there any debate about it at the time?

Sarah Seo:
There was debate. I mentioned how there was a group of reforming police chiefs who wanted to modernize and professionalize the police. And the person at the forefront of that movement was a police chief named August Vollmer. He was a police chief of Berkeley, California, from 1905 to 1932. And a lot of police scholars today call him the father of modern policing in America. And he firmly believed that the police should not enforce traffic. He also believed that the police should not enforce vice laws because the police as professionals were crime fighters and they should devote their time to fighting and investigating crime, not enforcing traffic laws or vice laws like prostitution or like anti-liquor laws.

Roman Mars:
Right. Like he didn’t see those as serious crimes worthy of the police’s attention, like it was more of an administrative task than professional police work.

Sarah Seo:
Yeah and the other thing is that traffic quickly came to consume much of the police’s time. It became a large part of their duties, and for the police to enforce the letter of the law against these ordinarily law-abiding citizens proved to be a huge headache because nobody liked being enforced. Nobody liked to be ticketed. Nobody liked to be arrested for a traffic violation. And so what Volmer saw was what he called the respectable citizenry, started turning against the police. And he hated that because police as professionals were owed respect, not disdain. And so what he realized to manage this kind of public relations rule of law problem was to advise his officers, actually exercise your judgment and discretion. And let’s not enforce the law to the letter. Let’s mitigate the harshness of the law. Even if the law says to arrest somebody for a traffic violation, let’s just let them go with a warning. It’s better to manage our relations with the citizenry rather than to antagonize and alienate them. So he definitely saw the challenges of traffic law enforcement that he did not like at all.

Roman Mars:
Right. Even though his opposition didn’t end up mattering that much. And an interesting irony in the book is that cars actually ended up helping Vollmer achieve his goals of having this modern professional police force. Because so many people were breaking traffic laws that meant that they had to have more police officers on the road, and they needed their own patrol cars, and all the traffic tickets helped pay for it.

Sarah Seo:
Exactly. And what he didn’t entirely anticipate, but what happened pretty quickly, was that American society became a car society. And so a lot of crime was taking place in cars on the road anyway. And so very early on, local and state government officials were realizing that crime-fighting and criminal investigation, a lot of it was happening on the road. And that traffic cops, while they were looking for safety violations, could also look to see if there were evidence of other crimes.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sarah Seo:
And so we see this merging of the duties between traffic enforcement and criminal law enforcement and vice enforcement. This is a period, of course, where prohibition, national probation, is in effect. And cars were one of the best ways to transport liquor.

Roman Mars:
Right. And so this becomes a major Fourth Amendment question. And that’s the amendment that protects against undue searches and seizures. And, you know, we all know – probably from watching tv – that the police need to get a warrant to search your house, but they actually don’t need to get a warrant to search your car. When did that get decided?

Sarah Seo:
It’s a question that first comes up in the 1920s at a time when prohibition is in effect and the mass production of cars has really settled in American culture. And the reason why this question of whether the police need a warrant to stop and search a car becomes such a big issue in the 1920s is because bootleggers realized that one of the best ways to transport their illicit liquor is in their cars. And police officers and prohibition agents want to stop cars and search them. And they don’t… they didn’t have time to get a warrant. So they wanted to be able to do that without a warrant. And this is a really hard issue because the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of persons, houses, papers, and effects.

Roman Mars:
Cars obviously weren’t around when the constitution was written, but they could be thought of as ‘effects’ in this scenario. And so this tension emerged during the prohibition era about whether it’s okay for the police to search a car without a warrant if they suspected that people inside were smuggling alcohol. And this tension comes to a head in the courts in 1925 with the Carroll case.

Sarah Seo:
The Carroll case was the U.S. Supreme Court’s first car search case. It was decided in 1925. But it actually came before the court in 1923. And they had to argue it again a second time because the issues were so difficult. The way that the case started was with three prohibition agents and a public safety officer from the state of Michigan. They saw a flashy Oldsmobile convertible drive past them.

Roman Mars:
And the officers recognized the car. It belonged to a gang of known bootleggers called the “Caroll brothers” so the police decided to go after it.

Sarah Seo:
They didn’t have any evidence at that time that they saw the car, that there was liquor in the car at the time. They just knew that the Carroll brothers were involved in bootlegging. So they stopped the car and they searched it and they couldn’t find anything. They were about to let the Carroll brothers go until one of them hit something hard inside the upholstery of the backseat. So they tore open the upholstery and they found 80 some bottles of liquor sewn into the backseat. The Carol brothers tried to bribe them off but they refused the bribe and they prosecuted the case.

Roman Mars:
The defense attorneys for the Carroll brothers argued that there was no way for the police to have known in advance that there was liquor in the car, and so the search was illegal under the fourth amendment. And the justices on the court thought that made sense, but they ruled against the Carrol brothers anyway, in a decision that we’re still living with today. They wrote that cars had so thoroughly changed American society that they needed to be treated differently from other forms of property. The court created an automobile exception to the fourth amendment.

Sarah Seo:
And so the new constitutional rule that the U.S. Supreme Court set forth in the 1925 Carroll case is basically still the law today which is if a police officer has probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime inside the car, they can stop the car without a warrant.

Roman Mars:
This was a huge change. Instead of needing to go before a judge to determine whether there were grounds to make a search, the officer could now make that determination for themselves. If they got sued later on, the police just needed to tell the judge, you know, “I had probable cause because of these set of facts I saw on the road.”

Sarah Seo:
And what judges and courts have done throughout the 20th century is exercise what critics have called judicial charity. Another way to put it is that courts have often believed the police’s account of probable cause. And so over time, over the 20th century, probable cause has become this very loose standard.

Roman Mars:
The impact of the Carroll case went beyond cars. Forty years later, in Terry vs Ohio, the supreme court legalized “stop and frisk,” and they justified that decision by pointing to Carroll.

Sarah Seo:
The Court accepted the logic of Carroll that the fourth amendment had to evolve to be reasonable to meet the circumstances of a modern world, and so it adopted and cited the Carroll decision for that proposition.

Roman Mars:
The fourth amendment protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures. But over the course of the twentieth century, what constitutes a “reasonable” search has been pretty hard to pin down

Sarah Seo:
Fourth Amendment reasonableness analysis has this phrase that comes up a lot in the cases. What is reasonable depends on the totality of the circumstances. Each case has to be decided on its own, case by case. And so when you have each case decided on its own and the police comes before the court testifying as to why he or she acted in this way or that way, a judge is likely to say, you’re right. I can’t judge what you did in hindsight. What you do is a difficult job, often dangerous. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. So Fourth Amendment reasonableness determinations have, for the most part, sided with the police. And over time that has just given police a lot of discretionary authority.

Roman Mars:
And how has this increased discretionary power impacted the racial dynamic in policing?

Sarah Seo:
So the interesting thing about the history of discretionary power is that in the early 20th century, discretionary power was seen as a good thing for citizens because an officer who exercised discretion could say, “You violated the speed limit but I’m going to use my discretion to let you off with a warning. Don’t do it again.” But the police exercise their discretion, with respect to the poor and people of color, to pull over black and brown drivers more often than white drivers. They exercise their discretion to search the cars of black and brown drivers more often than white drivers. And oftentimes, and this is based off of a study conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project, oftentimes they search cars with little suspicion or no suspicion at all when it comes to drivers of color. And so discretion today allows the police to exercise their authority in discriminatory ways.

Roman Mars:
Right, and I mean if we go back to the Sandra Bland case, I guess we can’t say for sure if that was racial profiling, but you know…she failed use her turn signal and the officer chose to use that minor infraction as an excuse to go much further. And I guess what’s disturbing about it is that…it’s not really clear that the officer did anything technically illegal.

Sarah Seo:
Yeah, the “New York Times” asked three or four legal scholars to look at the video of the encounter and answer the question, “Was the officer who pulled over Sandra Bland justified in doing what he did?” And they all believed that the officer went too far, but they couldn’t say that definitively because constitutional law allowed almost all of the actions that he took. The officer can make an arrest for a minor traffic violation. That’s reasonable policing. And so the definition of reasonableness has become very broad and capacious.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing that I find sort of amazing about all this stuff happening at once is you have this technology, this thing, the car is created. It takes over American society. And it is a place of diminished Fourth Amendment protections and a place where you can be policed, you know, kind of capriciously because of the litany of rules that you could possibly be breaking at any one moment in which you could be stopped. And so it creates this perfect void where the discretion of the officer just fills that void.

Sarah Seo:
Yeah. And I think an important point is to think about that role in the context of traffic laws. Almost everybody violates some traffic law at some point. Right? Speeding is a common one. So the police officer can choose who to pull over for a traffic violation. Right? And during that traffic stop, they can look for facts amounting to probable cause to search a car. And so you have traffic law enforcement merging with the Carroll rule, which gives police officers a lot of discretionary power if they want to start investigating. And add to that all these other doctrines that have been established over the 20th century with respect to cars. Another area of law is the “consent doctrine,” which is if an officer gets your consent to search your car, then the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply. And so a common scenario is a traffic or a patrol or an officer stops someone for a traffic violation, looks for facts that might amount to probable cause, but also asks, “Can I search your car?” And once they have that, they don’t need probable cause anymore. And a lot of searches are done through consent.

Roman Mars:
And depending on the disposition of the officer, they can create probable cause because if they react violently and people push back or react at all or stand up for themselves or assert that they have some kind of right in their person or in this space. I mean, this is what happened with the Sandra Bland case. I mean, there’s no reason why he necessarily had to be offended by her having a cigarette, you know, that escalated that incident. And because of that, it escalated to the point that she was arrested and she died. And so, again, it just creates this mess of things where one person has too much power because of this confluence of technology and law and how we police it.

Sarah Seo:
And I would add that critics had predicted this as soon as the 1925 Carol decision came out. Right? There was one critic that said reasonable or probable cause is a standard that allows the police to be wrong in some circumstances. Now, if you have that kind of standard, a police officer can fudge the truth a little bit, maybe even falsify probable cause. So these critics really are already anticipating the abuse that could happen with the probable or reasonable cause standard for warrantless car searches. And we see that today there was a New York state judge last year who complained about the odor of marijuana as this kind of cliche in police accounts of probable cause, because the odor of marijuana is a fact that supports probable cause. But how do you disprove that there was odor of marijuana in the car later in a court of law? It really comes down to whether the judge believes the police officer, that he or she smelled marijuana in the car. There’s nothing else that a person can do to disprove that fact other than to challenge the credibility of the officer. And so this odor of marijuana has become this really common thing that officers will add to their account in the totality of the circumstances to support probable cause.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, one of the things that’s pretty amazing is that, you know, I’m a white man in his 40s. I can afford to hire a good lawyer. And if a police officer pulls behind me in my car while I’m just… what I think of as behaving normally and adhering to the rules, I get scared. You know, like I think I’ve done something wrong or I think there’s the potential that I will do something wrong. And I can’t even imagine what that is like for someone not in my situation, for a black man where the risk is so much higher. Why have we accepted this? Like why have we accepted this dynamic where an individual police officer has so much power over a person in their car?

Sarah Seo:
I think we accept it. And I think the reason why judges have accepted it is because of the dangers of cars. Cars are really dangerous. Road safety is a big issue. I am scared of drunk drivers. They’re a huge problem on the road. Right? I want to be protected by the state. That is a legitimate function of the government. It’s just that because we’ve delegated that task to the police that also handles criminal enforcement, that’s caused so much of the problems we see today. And so I think part of the answer to your question of why haven’t we questioned the police enforcement of traffic laws is, I think, goes back to traffic safety is a huge deal. But we can question whether the police are the right institution to handle that or not.

Roman Mars:
Coming up after the break, we’re going to take a look at a city that is doing just that, separating traffic enforcement from its police department. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So the town I live in, Berkeley, California… I live in Berkeley. The headquarters is in beautiful downtown Oakland, California, but I live in Berkeley. It was also the home of the police chief, August Vollmer, the so-called father of modern policing. Actually, he lived around the corner from my house. But as Sara Seo talks about in her book, Vollmer was not a fan of the idea that police should be in charge of enforcing traffic laws. He did not consider rolling through a stop sign to be a crime worthy of the police’s attention. So 100 years later, the city of Berkeley has made a decision that August Vollmer might have approved of.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, so in July of 2020, Berkeley City Council passed this big omnibus motion related to policing and one of the strategies in there had to do with traffic.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett FitzGerald. Hello, Emmett!

Emmett FitzGerald:
Hey.

Roman Mars:
So explain what actually happened there.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So the Council is basically beginning the process of taking traffic enforcement out of the hands of its police department. They voted to create a new body, the Department of Transportation or BerkDOT, as they’re calling it, which, you know, in addition to doing all the things like traffic engineering and more structural stuff, would also administer the rules of the road. And, you know, this is very much in the early stages. But that’s the intention. That’s what they’re setting out to do. And one thing that I found so interesting is that the whole idea for this proposal was actually inspired in part by Sarah Seo’s book.

Barnali Ghosh:
We were influenced by Sarah Seo’s book because I think what it brought forward is this idea that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Barnali Ghosh. She’s a transportation advocate here in Berkeley. She’s on the coordinating committee of a community organization called “Walk Bike Berkeley” and is the chair of the Berkeley Transportation Commission, which is a body that advises Berkeley City Council on transportation issues. And Ghosh says that one of her colleagues at Walk Bike Berkeley actually heard Sarah Seo speak on another podcast, “The Great War on Cars” podcast. Check it out. And that got them interested in all this history, and particularly in August Vollmer.

Barnali Ghosh:
You know, Vollmer, who was seen often as the father of modern policing — all kinds of issues with him — but even he, even the father of modern policing, didn’t think that traffic enforcement should be part of the police department. And that’s something we also learn from Sarah Seo’s book.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I mean, I was totally riveted by that section and thought it was just kind of remarkable.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. And that just got Ghosh and the folks at Walk Bike Berkeley and other community groups thinking, like, does it have to be this way?

Barnali Ghosh:
I think for a long time we all took it for granted that, of course, police is going to do traffic enforcement. But if you actually think about it, the more we shared this idea with people, it becomes quite clear that you don’t need armed police to ticket somebody who might have stepped off the curb a few minutes before the light change.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And, you know, Ghosh has been working on transit issues for a long time. You know, questions of safety and how we can redesign our cities to make them safer and rely less on cars. And she says that enforcement has always been a major obstacle for getting everyone in the community on board.

Barnali Ghosh:
We do have a lot of anger against cars, which are dangerous. You know, we are upset when people pass from the bike lane and enforcement is seen as a tool to create safe streets. But we as transportation advocates are really tired of using transportation safety as a way to stop people. The folks in our community, especially black community members, were telling us, “We do not want more police in our neighborhoods so you can have safety.” So we were already beginning to think about what safety looks like from an inclusive perspective. So not just not getting hit by a car, but also not being harassed by police. When you’re out walking in the street.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so Berkeley has created this new Department of Transportation that theoretically will oversee traffic enforcement. But what is that like specifically? Like who will be the person who, like, stops someone to give them a speeding ticket?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yes. I asked Barnali Ghosh about this. And again, it’s the very, very early stages of this. And so there is no concrete answer to that. But she gave me the analogy of a building inspector.

Barnali Ghosh:
So if a building inspector is coming in to check if you are up to code, they’re not carrying a gun to enter your house, you know, expecting that they might find drugs. So why is it okay then, to use a violation of traffic safety to escalate to something more than that?

Roman Mars:
That’s a good metaphor. So something like the building inspector but for traffic is the thing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. I think something kind of like that. An unarmed person who is an expert in traffic and transportation issues and crucially, and this is an interesting part of the conversation, crucially, Ghosh said the person that could also, you know, be a part of the effort to engineer and make our streets better so that person could use, you know, in responding to a specific incident, they’re also able to help provide data on what went wrong from the perspective of urban design.

Barnali Ghosh:
They will be able to report back to BerkDOT, to the Department of Transportation, on what are some of the infrastructural issues that might be causing people to… are they not able to see the stop sign? Is there a tree branch blocking it? Right? So we hope that it can be somebody who is thinking, whose main priority is traffic safety, not looking for crime.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Ghosh really emphasized this a lot in our conversation, that the traffic enforcement should always be done in conjunction with better design and engineering. So anytime you have a violation, you ask, like, is there something about the way that these streets are designed that could have prevented this?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So, like, instead of the way we’re doing this right now where policing is totally distinct from planning and engineering and design. It’s just a layer added on top of all that stuff. They do not talk to each other at all.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. And Ghosh is like very bullish on this that, you know, so many traffic problems are really design problems and that we can reduce the amount of enforcement that is needed really dramatically if these different agencies work together and share data and design streets that are safe streets.

Roman Mars: So in our interview, I asked Sarah Seo about this new policy in Berkeley, and she said that she thinks it’s really exciting and that it’s a great way to reduce your bad interactions between the public and the police because traffic stops are the number one way that people come into contact with law enforcement.

Sarah Seo:
And I think this makes a lot of sense for several reasons. One is that the police today are trained in what is called the “warrior mentality” because they are trained to deal with criminal suspects, to investigate crime, to pursue criminal investigations. They tend to see a lot of their encounters in that warrior mentality, which is not necessarily appropriate to traffic law enforcement when it’s supposed to be a routine administrative task. I think that the history that I tell in my book points to some difficulties with this proposal or some challenges to this proposal that have to be addressed.

Roman Mars:
And what are some of those logistical difficulties?

Sarah Seo:
The argument that I make in my book is that the police became professionalized. They became modernized. They gained a lot of discretionary power because of the challenges of enforcing traffic laws on the general public. I saw this history repeat itself in the 1990s New York City experiment with meter maids where New York City has these traffic agents that are not police officers and they’re informally called meter maids and they issue citations for low-level offenses, mostly parking violations. And they realize the same thing that traffic cops in the 1920s and 30s realized. Enforcing traffic laws on the general public is a really hard task. And they got a lot of abuse. They were actually assaulted. And so what they wanted, what they lobbied for was to have the status and the authority of police officers because they thought if I have the power of a police officer, then the public won’t abuse me or assault me when I’m directing traffic.

Roman Mars:
And so basically in New York City, they did everything they could to make meter maids more like police officers in the end. So they gave them blue uniforms and they gave them more power. And in the case, they kind of reinvented the police.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, and then you end up in a situation that looks an awful lot like the one you were trying to get away from.

Roman Mars:
So Sarah says that if Berkeley is going to create this new class of traffic enforcer, the city is really going to have to work hard on public education and buy-in so that that type of power and force is not required in this new enforcement body.

Sarah Seo:
So I think if the public understands the direct connection between their cooperation with traffic agents and society’s reliance on policing. Then that could go a long way towards not having to fall back into the cycle of increasing the discretionary authority of whoever it is that enforces traffic laws.

Roman Mars:
So it’s the really early stages of all this, but I think it’s really exciting that people are trying to shake things up and try new things.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, yeah. And quite interesting. I mean, it’s cool to me to see Berkeley sort of at the center of all this history going back 100 years and now coming full circle.

Roman Mars: Yeah. It’s like, it’s almost poetic that it’s happening here when it all kind of started here. This is so cool. Well, thanks so much for bringing this and adding this to the interview. Thank you.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, of course. Thank you.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmet FitzGerald. Music by Sean Real. Delaney Hall is our senior producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg. Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KLAW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which lives at the far corners of North America but is centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all and Radiotopia.fm.

You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. We’re going to take a brief summer break so that we can breathe and prepare for all our big plans in the fall about the book (which you can pre-order at 99pi.org/book) and other special series we have coming. Roman Mars: There’s so much good stuff going on, but we just need a little bit of time to make it all happen. And just also, you know, take a vacation. So listen to all those back episodes that you didn’t get a chance to because of no commuting during COVID. But you can always keep tabs on us online at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Host Roman Mars spoke with Sarah Seo, author of Policing the Open Road; Barnali Ghosh, Chair of the Berkeley Transporation Commission.

This episode was produced and edited by Emmett FitzGerald.

  1. I gotta say, Sarah completely ignores he fact that there were many many thousands of people riding bicycles at the turn of the century before motor-vehicles displaced and killed them off. The book “Roads Were Not Built For Cars” by Carlton Reid 2015 is a must-read on this topic.

    It is a tragedy that someone gets pulled over for a small infraction and it escalates and racism/discrimination has no place in our society. However, the rules and regulations for motorists are there for a reason, and especially when a cyclist is riding and someone doesn’t signal it can mean life or death. I have a broken neck (now a titanium neck) specifically because a motorist failed to signal their turn.

    Motor vehicles weigh many many thousands of pounds and cause immense death and destruction each year for tens of thousands of humans.

    I have a car, don’t get me wrong, but the way that many people drive flippantly and with utter disregard for human life and vulnerable road users astounds me. Many act as tho it’s a “GOD” given right to operate a motor vehicle, when it’s merely a privilege they are able to enjoy and pay for as long as they follow the rules.

    The bicycle is The Answer; to the environment, to traffic, to fitness and health and on and on and on.

    1. Johnny

      I agree, and regardless of my personal bias, several times in this episode I wondered why decisions were made, and they weren’t really addressed. It felt like my opinion “had” to be this, and to keep moving on with this narrative. Not the most balanced episode.

  2. I found the piece provocative because of the impact of the vehicle…on the Courts/Law, once they made that first ruling, and then it led to more rulings. What a great addition to the 99% Inv library! And the follow on piece about Berkley. Thats really thinking outside the box. Taking a chance. I see issues with high speed cars potentially causing mayhem and loss of life needing to be chased by…who? But I bet they’ll figure it out.

  3. Lisa

    I too found it telling how readily we accepted policing as a “solution” to reckless driving, rather than pursuing thorough driver education and actually making sure people handle their cars with serious care.

    Implicitly, this says that cars are actually extremely difficult to handle with care if so many “good citizens” are regularly making hazardous infractions. Cars are massive, easily lethal vehicles, and yet we treat them so casually as if they’re a simple household appliance. And meanwhile every bit of marketing around them teaches us to push cars to their limits, to own the road, to drive aggressively.

    How exactly are you a “good citizen” if you blow off these risks? What a flawed fundamental reason for an extraordinarily harmful system.

  4. Seth Loiterman

    I was pulled over about 15 years ago and arrested. My car was taken and and a slew of officers- both black and white-were on hand and abused their power over me. My crime? Running a red light (they finally told me after I was cuffed and my car was getting towed and I was taken to the station). My real crime? Making officers feel foolish and upsetting them.

    What I did not realize at the time was how frightened officers are and how misaplied training can g horribly wrong as in the tragic case of Sandra Bland, may she rest in peace and her arrest and death be lesson to us all.

    I love 99PI. For a very good podcast you told a one sided story. For a more complete understanding of policing and the Sandra Bland case and an understanding of our current state of unrest please read Malcolm Gladwell’s book – “Talking To Strangers” It helped me come to peace over a decade later with what happened to me that night, scared and overwhelmed by 5 cops. It will not only bend your mind but also explain the design of “Kansas City” style policing, the flaws and the merrits.

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