When I was in my early 20s, I picked up my brother from a bar and got pulled over about 300 feet from my parents’ house. He was drunk and had done the right thing in calling me; I was only in town for a couple of days, and hadn’t driven in weeks, maybe months. However long it was, it was long enough for me to have forgotten to renew the registration and insurance on my ’96 Toyota Avalon, and let my driver’s license lapse—the big three of automotive no-no’s. In maybe the only instance of my life of a cop ever helping me out, he let me drive the last 300 feet home, after much haggling and pleading (“no, seriously, it’s right there, you can follow me”; he did).
Tagged up as I was with a nearly insurmountable fine, in retrospect, it was the right thing. An unlicensed driver in a pinch is one thing, but an uninsured car can lead to financial ruin, and unregistered vehicles are rarely used for anything but nefarious purposes.
Jump forward eight years or so, and I’m a 30-year-old dad with a baby on board driving in a city known for near-Somalian levels of traffic oversight. Any charm that I once saw in an absolutely libertarian traffic culture has since evaporated, and as a more committed pedestrian with a Gracco stroller and a front-facing baby carrier, I have come to loathe things like median parking and the South Philly Slide.
In a city where traffic safety is, and long has been an afterthought, I find myself constantly on edge and concerned. I recently moved from a corner of South Philly rife with everything from unlicensed motorists who had no qualms about doing standing hit-and-runs to unregistered cars used in drive-bys—one of which resulted in my car being shot. This is why I’m genuinely flummoxed by recently passed legislation in Philadelphia that, functionally, legalizes all of the above.
Philly’s driving equality bill
Earlier this month, City Council passed, by a 14-2 vote, bills that will make it against the law for police in Philadelphia to pull over motorists for a retinue of “minor traffic offenses,” which include the following: driving an unregistered vehicle, driving with a hidden license plate, driving without general inspection and driving without emissions inspection. Police can no longer pull over Philadelphia motorists for driving with a busted taillight or a loud muffler, either.
The intent, according to Councilmember Isaiah Thomas and the bill’s supporters, is simple: to reduce the number of unnecessary police interactions and searches between police and Black and brown Philadelphians. An understandable and honorable goal in many ways, surely, and one that almost certainly comes deep from Councilman Thomas’ heart, as a Philadelphian who says that he has been profiled and unnecessarily pulled over by police. And his experience is backed up by the statistics. There is a profiling problem: 72 percent of drivers pulled over in Philadelphia are Black, despite making up just north of 40 percent of the population.
The bill also allows for 120 days for police to be retrained under the new city policy, which reduces the Philadelphia police to only being allowed to pull drivers over for moving violations, such as speeding (a rarity) and blowing through a stop sign.
While the intent is understandable, the consequences of such a law might be shocking. On a practical level: what motivation will any Philadelphian have to register a car if they don’t travel out of the city? I can’t imagine any. And on that note: an unregistered car is, by default, an uninsured car. Philadelphia is, in so many words, codifying a policy that says drivers in the city don’t need to be insured.
Regardless of intent, Philadelphia has legalized unregistered, uninsured and unsafe driving, and ensured that a city that is struggling with street safety will only get worse.
The practical consequences are all pretty easy to predict. Less adherence to traffic laws, less care given to how safely cars are operated, more danger in traffic. Regardless of intent, Philadelphia has legalized unregistered, uninsured and unsafe driving, and ensured that a city that is struggling with street safety will only get worse. But my issue lies more on the philosophical end of things, and the future of this place.
Making an already-dangerous city more unsafe
Philadelphia, as a city, is lurching into a 21st century that is sensitive to what future cities should look like. The future, as evidenced recently by the wild popularity of Covid-related street closures and sidewalk restaurant expansion, is one for pedestrians, and the brunt of the dialogue among architects and urbanists is about how to make cities like Philadelphia more friendly to people who walk and bike.
Philadelphia politicians love to make a point about how dangerous a city ours is for pedestrians, and they’re right. From South Broad to Lincoln Drive to Center City, walkers are under threat from dangerous drivers and car overcrowding. And as often as not, traffic accidents go unsolved or unattended—in 2017 and 2018, Philadelphia reported nearly 30,000 hit and runs, which are often untrackable due to lack of registration. With this legislation, what Philadelphia is encouraging is even less responsibility surrounding the privilege of driving a car.
As cities around the world move to pedestrianize and encourage use of public transit and the decentering of personal vehicles as the main conveyance, as well as greater supervision of those vehicles, Philadelphia is capitulating to irresponsible drivers for reasons of “equity.” Rather than pushing forward and seriously considering ways in which Philly can become a safer, more walkable, more livable place for everyone, we are instituting policies that will make an already-dangerous city, that suffered its highest rate of car crash fatalities in 23 years in the last year, more unsafe.
There are many ways to address the stunning racial inequity of American life, both in society at large and in Philadelphia, and a radical transformation of the notion of policing has to be among them. That said, the future of Philadelphia cannot be one in which pedestrian safety is dictated by the whims of unsafe drivers. While the Driving Equality bills recently passed by City Council will surely decrease the number of unnecessary interactions between police and people of color in this city, it will, in practical and philosophical terms, make this city less safe.
Operating an unsafe vehicle, or operating a safe one unsafely, is a basic unit of interpersonal civic responsibility. Running away from that responsibility is the exact wrong thing to do for a city in a crisis of pedestrian and street safety.
Quinn O’Callaghan is a teacher and writer in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @gallandguile.
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