Equity and the MUTCD: NMA E-Newsletter #644

As we have noted prominently in recent newsletters and email action alerts, the Federal Highway Administration has recommended sweeping changes to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). In Equity and Sustainability (NMA E-Newsletter #637), we criticized the appropriation of those terms, particularly ‘equity,’ to demand broad restrictions on drivers and driving.

NMA Director John Carr posted his perspective as a public comment to the MUTCD federal docket. We need not say more.


This is a general discussion of the implications of the MUTCD on equity which I will refer to later in comments on specific sections. 

Many comments on the docket treat “equity” as a meaningless word that one mentions before “sustainability,” which is in turn a word one uses after “equity.” It has an air of “I know it when I see it.” Generally, it is used as a synonym for “not cars.” 

The President has announced two general policies which shed some light on what the administration considers “equity” to mean: 

  1. Agency actions should not “inappropriately burden disadvantaged, vulnerable, or marginalized communities.”
  2. “The Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” 

America has a long history of using traffic regulations for revenue raising or with discriminatory effect, whether against motorized or non-motorized road users. The phrases “pretest stop,” “driving while black,” and “speed trap town” are all in the American lexicon thanks to overregulation. 

Every time the MUTCD permits or requires a regulatory device instead of a warning sign, or permits or requires stricter regulation, thought should be given to how the devices will be abused. Changes to stop signs, speed limits, and crosswalk placement all give police opportunities or take them away. 

Increasing police-public interactions have a disparate impact on disadvantaged, vulnerable, and marginalized communities. The Federal Highway Administration should think carefully before encouraging states to create more traffic violations. 


John included several examples of how over-regulation of traffic can lead to inequities in the real-world sense of the word. Here are two:



At the intersection of revenue-based enforcement and racial disparity, the Department of Justice (2015 Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department) concluded: 

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs . . .  Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular . . .

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African Americans. Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population. African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search. African Americans are more likely to be cited and arrested following a stop regardless of why the stop was initiated and are more likely to receive multiple citations during a single incident.

Ferguson is not that unusual except that race riots drew national attention and a Department of Justice investigation. Otherwise, people would say, “if you don’t want a ticket, don’t speed” and forget about it.


Washington, D.C.

Ferrell found that with 96% of tickets in Washington, D.C. issued by cameras, “a driver in a black-segregated area is over 17 times more likely to receive a moving violation (at a cost of 16 times more per resident) than in a white-segregated area.” This despite a similar per-capita rate of crashes. In other words, robots may be color-blind, but the people who deploy them are not. 

Think of this before imagining automated enforcement is a solution to discriminatory enforcement. Cameras are placed to raise revenue (which disproportionately affects the poor) and targets groups without political influence.

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!

Leave a Comment