Tom Vanderbilt

Americans’ most common contact with police is “the dreaded and oft-scorned traffic stop,” said Tom Vanderbilt. Most of us view being stopped for speeding or other infractions as an irritating act of government intrusion into a trivial offense.

But traffic stops actually serve as a critical tool for maintaining public safety—and not just on the roads. Police make more than 20 million traffic stops each year, and they often serve “as a net for catching bigger fish.’’ People with disdain for traffic laws have disdain for all laws. So “routine’’ traffic stops often result “in a trunk’s worth of drugs, a cache of hidden weapons, or an outstanding warrant.’’ Cities that emphasize high-visibility traffic enforcement, including Baltimore, have seen a reduction in the overall crime rate. Meanwhile, France has reduced its “road fatality rate” by 43 percent since 2000, largely through an aggressive deployment of automated speed cameras and tough penalties.

So the next time a cop pulls you over, instead of cursing him under your breath, you might say “thanks.’’ That speeding ticket is helping to save people’s lives.