March 28, 2002

The Myth of "The Myth of Racial Profiling" or Counting the Skins on the New Jersey Turnpike.

While Heather Mac Donald might claim that a recent study of Turnpike speeders proves her case, a closer look at the study still leaves the same questions.

Heather Mac Donald is very, very happy. In her Spring 2001 City Journal article, The Myth of Racial Profiling, Mac Donald put forth the proposition that there was no such thing as “racial profiling” per se, since the key issue wasn’t the arrests/stops of any particular racial group in relation to their presence in society, but whether they accurately reflected their criminal presence. With the recent release of a study regarding New Jersey Turnpike drivers Mac Donald seemingly has her smoking gun, and in her latest piece on the subject she couldn't be more thrilled.
The anti–racial profiling juggernaut has finally met its nemesis: the truth. According to a new study, black drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike are twice as likely to speed as white drivers, and are even more dominant among drivers breaking 90 miles per hour. This finding demolishes the myth of racial profiling. Precisely for that reason, the Bush Justice Department tried to bury the report so the profiling juggernaut could continue its destructive campaign against law enforcement. […] The new turnpike study, commissioned by the New Jersey attorney general, solves one of the most vexing problems in racial profiling analysis: establishing a violator benchmark.
Most of the news reports I've read cautiously agree with the idea that the question of the "violator benchmark" has been solved, though usually with a comment that the Department of Justice’s has questioned the report's accuracy. Later in her piece Mac Donald makes light of the DoJ attempts and its methodology concerns (namely, unreliable driver identifications), and since I can’t confirm nor deny those claims I’m going to go along with Mac Donald and stick with the information as it was presented. As I read it, the report is less of a slam dunk than Mac Donald wants us to believe.

Update: My original information below regarding the speed-limit dividing point on the Turnpike appears to be outdated/incorrect, with it being several exits north from where I originally had it. At the moment I'm not sure how much of my original post this may change. Perhaps you should just ignore the whole damn thing for now.

The first important thing to realize is that, for all practical purposes, there are essentially two New Jersey Turnpikes, north and south, divided by Exit 8. When you think of the Turnpike you probably think of the northern section: traffic, oil refineries, awful smells, the opening of The Sopranos. The southern section is a fairly open, more rural road with a 65-mph speed limit as opposed to the north’s 55. The study defined speeding as driving 15 MPH over the limit (which also seems to be the police officers’ definition), and while I agree with Mickey Kaus’ assertions (scroll down to his March 27 Hit Parade) that “everybody speeds on the Turnpike (or else you get a large truck up your ass),” I have to say that in my experience drivers going more than 80 are pretty rare, a feeling borne out by the report. Only 1.7% of drivers in the 65-mph zone were classified as speeding, a small sample, especially considering the study's brief 48-hour length.

A number of the articles I've seen state that black drivers are twice as likely to speed as white drivers, but what is not specified in many of these articles is that this difference is only in the 65-mph areas, while black/white speeding rates in the 55-MPH zone are practically equal. This Newark Star-Ledger article is a notable exception.
In the 55-mph zone, there were virtually no differences between black and white drivers, but at the southern end of the Turnpike, where the speed limit is 65 mph, black drivers were more likely to be found speeding, the report said.

The report said at the extreme high ends of the speed distribution, black drivers are overrepresented in the 65-mph zone. However, while about 13 percent of the drivers in the 55-mph zone were classified as speeding, only 1.7 percent of the vehicles in the 65-mph zone were speeding. Because of the low number, the report says, it does not take much for sharp differences to emerge in the 65-mph zone.
Now, my own experience has been almost exclusively in the northern New Brunswick to Hoboken/Holland Tunnel stretch, and from what I’ve seen an extremely disproportionate number of black motorists get pulled over in this section. My friend Keith and I used to travel on the Turnpike frequently, and this was so noticeable that it actually became a joke between us, to the point where when we would see a car pulled over up ahead we look at each other as if to say “Gee, I wonder what color that driver is.” About three-quarters of the time it did turn out to be a black driver. Though I have seen comments to the effect that profiling complaints are more common in the 65-mph zone, my own "casual empiricism" indicates that there must be a high incidence of suspected profiling in the 55-mph zone as well, an area for which this study reports no speeding differences between the black and white drivers.

While I'm not completely dismissing the report, it seems pretty far from the be-all and end-all that Mac Donald makes it out to be. Even if there are real differences in driving habits at higher speeds (again, not a certainty given the sample size), it doesn't explain what I've witnessed many times in the areas where there are supposedly no differences. I would have liked to have seen some concrete evidence regarding the profiling issue, but despite all the hype this study does not appear to be it.

Update: I imagine that many of you have already seen it, but James Taranto at OpinionJournal's Best of the Web Today also took issue with Mac Donald's sweeping claims.
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