Traffic stops are dangerous. Many officers are killed or injured each year in traffic related incidents. In 1999, more than half of all officer line-of-duty deaths were traffic related. When there is the use of a weapon at a traffic stop the percentage is more than 55 percent. Every stop for a traffic violation has the potential for danger.
“Routine” traffic stops sometimes turn out to be anything but routine. Officers find uninsured drivers, operators with suspended driver's licenses, drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, illegal firearms, or fugitives from justice. Because of what an officer may run into, they are trained to place a great deal of emphasis on safety and take a defensive posture at a traffic stop until the risk of injury or confrontation is diminished.
Under our laws and ordinances, you are expected to cooperate should the police stop you for a traffic violation. Drivers as well as passengers can all do their part by following a few simple guidelines and prevent an otherwise routine traffic stop from becoming confrontational.
The following is written by James J. Onder to strengthen the citizen and law enforcement partnership at the traffic stop and was excerpted from a publication by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Sheriff Magazine.
- Carry proper identification: a valid operator license, valid registration, and current proof of insurance.
- When being signaled by an officer to stop, look for the nearest place to position your vehicle, as far out of the lane of traffic as possible, and off to the right side of the roadway, where the shoulder is wider. Signal your move to the side of the roadway, stop, and turn on your flashers. Never pull into a private residential driveway. Homeowners do not appreciate you being on their property.
- Never attempt to out run a police vehicle or pretend you do not see the lights or hear the siren.
- Always stay in your vehicle unless you are asked to exit it by the officer. Then, do it slowly.
- Remain calm. If you have passengers, ask them to remain quiet and to cooperate with all reasonable requests. Do not allow anyone to make threatening gestures or statements to the officer.
- Keep your seat belt fastened until the officer has seen you wearing it.
- Avoid thinking that you were stopped because of your race, gender, religion, or national or ethnic origin. These stops are illegal, and officers are trained to know that type of stop violates federal and civil rights.
- During hours of darkness turn on your interior light so the officer can see that all is in order. This is a safety issue for the officer and although you may not get out of a ticket, he does appreciate the thought.
- Understand that the officer will turn on the police car's headlights and spotlight during the hours of darkness, again for safety purposes. It helps illuminate your cars interior.
- Officers tend to speak loudly because of traffic, or other noisy conditions. They are not trying to intimidate you.
- Keep your hands in plain view, preferably on the steering wheel. Ask your passengers to keep their hands in their laps in plain view as well.
- Do not make any sudden movements, especially towards the floorboard, rear seat, or passenger side of the vehicle. The officer may interpret these movements as an act of aggression, an attempt to obtain a weapon, or hide illegal contraband.
- Turn off your engine, radio, cell phone and roll your drivers window all the way down so you can hear the officer.
- Ask for identification if the officer is not in uniform or not in a marked police vehicle.
- Remember the officer's name.
- Remember, the first words spoken by you (and the officer) may set the tone of the interaction at the traffic stop.
- Wait until the officer requests your information. Do not immediately reach for your license, registration, and insurance cards. If items are out of reach, tell the officer where they are and reach for them slowly. Otherwise keep your hands on the steering wheel.
- Give the officer a chance to explain the violation. Officers are trained to ask for identification first, before providing an explanation for the stop.
- Answer the officer's questions to the best of your knowledge, but keep in mind that by law you do have the right not to answer questions.
- If the charge or citation is not clear, ask for an explanation in a polite manner.
- You may provide an explanation if there are special circumstances surrounding the incident. Be simple and polite, there is no need to apologize or to elaborate on the offense.
- Avoid provoking the officer or showing off in front of other occupants. Comply with the officer's requests first, and then seek an explanation.
- Do not argue with the officer at roadside. If you disagree with the citation or the officer's actions, discuss it with a district justice, or the officer's immediate supervisor.
- If you receive a citation, you will be asked to sign it. This not an admission of guilt. It only means that you received a citation.
- Don't be surprised if another police car appears. Many police departments use one man patrol cars. A second car is there to ensure an officer's safety. Be flexible; there are many issues concerning safety at a traffic stop, for the officer as well as the occupants of the vehicle he stops. Therefore, no traffic stop is routine. Cooperate with the officer and follow instructions.
- Practice a simple rule: Treat the officer like you or a member of your family want to be treated. Treat law enforcement officers with respect. In fact, say hello the next time you see one around your community. Write the agency the next time an officer is exceptionally kind and helpful.
- If you feel that the officer has acted irresponsibly, report the incident to the officer's agency. Document the officer's specific misconduct in a written statement, and submit it as soon as possible. Follow the agency procedure.
- A special note on firearms in vehicles. You should always let the officer know immediately if you are carrying a weapon BEFORE YOU MAKE ANY MOVEMENTS IN THE VEHICLE TO OBTAIN IDENTIFICATION. The officer has a procedure to determine where it is in the vehicle, if it is loaded, and property registered. Weapons may be registered for specific purposes such as hunting, protection, or target practice. The officer will ask you to produce a permit if applicable, which he can verify by radio. The officer will also ask you specific questions about your activities, and the officer's actions are designed to keep you both safe.