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Driving While Black: Stopwatch and Liberty call for an end to discriminatory policing on our roads

StopWatch and Liberty release ‘Driving While Black,’ a new report which raises concerns that not only are drivers targeted because they are Black, but a new offence and search powers, which would tie road traffic policing to immigration enforcement, will increase the incentive for racial profiling

Today StopWatch and Liberty are releasing ‘Driving While Black,’  a new report which raises concerns that not only are drivers targeted because they are Black, but a new offence and search powers, which would tie road traffic policing to immigration enforcement, will increase the incentive for racial profiling.

On Tuesday, an investigation by the Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICFRS) found 'troubling' disparities in stop and search use, with recent figures showing that black people were 8 times more likely to be stopped on the street. Yet, despite years of complaints about discrimination on our roads – forces are not required to record the number of traffic stops, who is being stopped or the outcome of these stops.

Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act gives the police broad powers to stop anyone they wish driving on the roads without the need for any form of suspicion. Survey data suggests that there are over 5.5 million traffic stops a year. These stops are by far the most widely used form of police stop power and represent a significant use of police time, but they are not subject to basic safeguards such as recording and monitoring and fall outside of the stop and search guidance. 

In 2016, Theresa May (as home secretary) said 'if you are from a black and ethnic minority community, you are more likely to be stopped by police under the Road Traffic Act but actually less likely to be arrested or fined.' She promised the introduction of traffic stop recording and action to reduce disparities. But the government’s reforms have been too soft and too slow. A pilot conducted by the National Police Chiefs Council shows that traffic stop recording is possible without increasing bureaucracy for officers. Yet, the Home Office’s initiative to improve stop and search, 'BUSSS' still does not include traffic stops and discrimination on our roads continues.

In fact, the situation is likely to get worse. A new offence of 'driving when unlawfully in the UK', together with powers to search drivers for immigration purposes, are on the statute book and could be brought into force at any moment.  

Already dubbed 'driving while illegal', these new laws are likely to create an additional impetus for traffic stops and drive discrimination. As Baroness Doreen Lawrence argued when opposing the introduction of the new traffic offence and search powers, these provisions: '… will affect countless British citizens. Inevitably, black and Asian Brits will bear the brunt. The enforcement of this offence, together with lax traffic powers, will lead to discriminatory interference with the right to private life of these citizens.'

Professor Ben Bowling, of the Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London and member of StopWatch says:

'Unjustified traffic stops have driven a wedge between police and communities for decades and it’s a scandal that discriminatory road policing persists. Vehicle stops should be used only for road safety and traffic control and never used without good reason. The government’s plan to make it a crime to “drive when unlawfully in the UK” is likely to intensify discriminatory policing against black and ethnic minority communities. This is a bad law and should be repealed.'

Rachel Robinson, Policy and Advocacy Manager, Liberty says:

'The power to stop vehicles without giving a reason has been disproportionately used against black and ethnic minority drivers for decades – damaging police-community relations and destroying trust in those tasked with upholding the law.
'Shamefully the Home Office is now also pushing the police back into immigration enforcement by piloting new powers to search drivers for immigration purposes. These powers risk ramping up racial profiling – yet the Home Secretary will not commit to publishing the pilot findings in full. Ministers talk a good game on tackling racism, but until this is more than just words, prejudices that undermine policing and hold communities back will persist.'


Notes to Editors:

  1. StopWatch is a coalition of legal experts, civil society groups, academics and young people that works to reduce disproportionality and promote best practice in stop and search powers.
  2. Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) is one of the UK’s leading civil liberties and human rights organisations. Liberty works to promote human rights and protect civil liberties through a combination of test case litigation, lobbying, campaigning and research.
  3. For further information please contact Carson Arthur at 020 7324 3533

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