Racial Disparities Found in Virginia Speeding Convictions: RAND

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Virginia state trooper. Photo by Tom Saunders/Virginia Department of Transportation

According to a RAND Corporation study, Black motorists in Virginia face more-serious charges for “excessive speeding” than white motorists do — even when committing the same speeding infraction.

For their data, the researchers combed through 657,116 Virginia speeding citations committed by either a Black or White individual anywhere from 2007 to 2015 in 18 districts. Within these speeding violations, there were no other crimes listed, and they did not lead to an arrest.

Once the researchers had their sample, they began analyzing the speed limits and comparing them to the speed cited in the infraction.

Virginia law states that any motorist pulled over for driving 20 miles per hour or more about the limit (to an excess of 80 mph in any speed limit) the driver is eligible to be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor violation.

However, according to RAND researchers, law enforcement officers and the courts can use discretion to reduce misdemeanor charges to a simple traffic infraction. Even though they have the discretion to do so, the authorities don’t always downgrade the driving infractions — and, as the RAND researchers uncovered, penalties are not equally handed down across racial lines.

Key Findings

At the officer stage, law enforcement in these sample cases downgraded the speeding charge to an infraction 58 percent of the time. At the court stage, the courts amended or dismissed misdemeanor speeding charges 42 percent of the time.

In terms of racial disparities, the RAND researchers found that among motorists cited for speeding in a range that qualified for a misdemeanor, 36 percent of Black motorists were convicted — compared with 19 percent of White motorists.

“About four-fifths of the racial disparity in whom the court convicted of a misdemeanor could be explained by observable case characteristics, such as whether the motorist attended the court hearing and whether a defense attorney was present,” the study details.

Overall, while several observable factors did impact these cases, after accounting for these factors, disparities still remained.

At the law enforcement stage, officers were characterized as “less lenient” in counties where Black motorists make up a large share of the cited motorists. And, at the court stage, disparities continued, mainly because Black motorists were less likely to attend required court hearings compared to White motorists, mainly because they were less likely to have an attorney.

This news is troubling advocates, considering misdemeanor convictions result in a criminal record, higher fines and fees, and a worse driving record — all which is detrimental to an individual, and can have important impacts on a person’s life.


“One potential way to remove the option for disparate treatment, and to ensure that motorists in different counties are policed in the same way, would be to move to a statewide system of automated speed enforcement, in which cameras are set up to identify and send citations to speeding vehicles,” the RAND researchers concluded.

They added: “The misdemeanor speed threshold could be set so that the overall level of enforcement is similar to current levels (in which a majority of motorists’ potential misdemeanor charges are discounted), but the criteria would apply to all motorists across the state in the same way regardless of race or location.”

Moreover, further analysis concluded that a large percentage of the racial disparities at the court stage “occurred because of racial differences in who attended the court hearing.”

If this proves to be an ongoing issue, the RAND researchers suggest that through online platforms, individuals could keep their racial identity to themselves, potentially reduing a judges’ ability to “engage in disparate treatment.”

Lastly, the study outlines that there must be a more “standardized process” when issuing citations, making next steps on how to proceed clearer from the individual’s perspective, as well as implementing text message reminders for upcoming court dates so as to make sure that people attend as they need to.

The full study can be accessed here. 

 This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.

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