The first modern traffic stop of any note occurred in Washington D.C. in 1872. William West, a black policeman, arrested Ulysses S. Grant, the sitting President of the United States, for driving his horse carriage too fast down 13th Street.
Grant was taken to the police station and from there to the courthouse, where he paid a $20 fine. Thus came the advent of the police traffic stop. At the time, roads had always been used for walking and horse riding/driving. Nobody was prepared for what followed.
With the development of the automobile, police were initially at a marked disadvantage because wealthy people owned cars and police departments did not. Rules of the road, such as they were, varied widely from town to town and enforcement was difficult due to the fact that motorists could - and did - simply elude police.
The rise of the automobile, combined with inconsistent regulatory approaches, resulted in a massive escalation in terms of loss of life; not only were thousands of kids reportedly run over, but many other people died in auto wrecks.
By 1925, car accidents claimed about 20,000 traffic fatalities per year. That’s more than half of the traffic fatalities in 2015, a year when the population was three times as large and American drivers drove 25 times more miles than they did in 1925.
Change was in the wind. Police departments more than doubled in size between 1910 and 1930 as they began developing their own fleets of vehicles. Traffic enforcement became a priority for a number of reasons, not the least of which involved reducing the rate of carnage; revenue enhancement was a big focus as well, and continues to be to this day.
The traffic stop, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is “the most common reason for contact with the police.” The agency estimated that in 2011, “42 percent of face-to-face contacts that U.S. residents had with police” were traffic stops.
And of course, traffic stops have figured prominently in racial tensions as well:
And of course, there was the Rodney King flashpoint. The advent of the automobile has proven to be one of the most transformative events in the annals of American history, both in terms of citizen mobility and in terms of police interactions.