Who would have thought the phrase “Click it or Ticket” would be so ominous to black motorists in Florida? For many, the words are a simple warning to fasten your seatbelt, not an indication of racial disparities and selective enforcement.
Unfortunately, black motorists here are more likely to be stopped and issued tickets for seatbelt violations far out of proportion to their numbers on the road. Blacks in Florida have been stopped and ticketed at twice the rate of whites.
A recent American Civil Liberties Union study found that blacks were 2.1 times more likely than whites to be cited for seatbelt offenses statewide. The rate is 1.9 times more often in Broward County and three times more often in Palm Beach County.
The difference in seatbelt use between blacks and whites can’t explain why law enforcement stop and ticket so many black motorists. Put another way: if blacks were stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations in proportion to their numbers among Florida drivers, they would have received 20,296 fewer citations.
If there’s any good news out of all this, it’s the fact the state of Florida collects the data. The idea that there would be a legal requirement for law enforcement to collect racial data on seatbelt citations was almost unthinkable prior to 2005 when the state had no law on the books that required motorists to wear seatbelts.
In 2005, the Florida Legislature approved a bill that gave law enforcement the green light to pull over motorists under 18 if they were suspected of not wearing their seatbelts. To get support from black lawmakers, the bill included a mandate that law enforcement collect data on the race and ethnicity of motorists stopped and cited for breaking the proposed law.
The new law was a big step for the state, but not nearly enough for the federal government. In 2009, Washington threatened to withhold roughly $35 million in federal transportation funds unless the state upgraded its 18-and-under seatbelt law to include all motorists. The change offered black legislators a chance to strengthen the data collection provision, too.
Up to that point, the information was being collected but not readily publicized. As chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Florida and the ranking member on the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee, I had a unique vantage point to introduce an amendment to require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to collect and publish the data in an annual report.
Fast forward six years to the present, and it seems like our efforts to reduce racial profiling behind the wheel in Florida is just getting started. “Driving While Black” is still a problem plaguing black motorists in the Sunshine State.
Black motorists, according to the ACLU study, received 22 percent of the tickets issued in 2014 across the state, but they made up 13.5 percent of the statewide driving-age population with access to a car. According to the report, blacks were issued tickets at about double the rate of whites in 2014 and in 2011.
Worse, the one provision in the law that black lawmakers had hoped would help them end racial disparity in seatbelt citations has proven to be an ongoing problem.
Simply put: law enforcement agencies across the state are breaking the law.
The required reporting of the race and ethnicity of persons receiving seatbelt citations is inconsistent as police and sheriff departments fail to report the data.
Florida has approximately 387 law enforcement agencies that employ more than 46,000 sworn police officers, according to a 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies by the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 2007, 293 law enforcement agencies reported the data to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which according to the ACLU study was the highest rate of compliance since the reporting provision went into effect.
In 2014, the number of reporting agencies fell to an all-time low of 147.
The fight to end this form of racism on the roads continues. Black lawmakers can improve Florida’s data collection and reporting system with legislation that penalizes law enforcement agencies that fail to comply with the existing law. “Driving While Black” is a serious problem. Resolving it should be, too.
Joe Gibbons is a former state representative in the Florida House and currently serves as vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party.