Red and blue strobes explode in your mirrors. You pull to the side of the road and madly begin fishing through the glove box for your registration and insurance. Then you tear off the seatbelt so you can jam a hand down your pants to locate your wallet. Just trying to be courteous, right? You know, have all your documents ready when The Man strolls up to your window.
Turns out, most cops don’t want you to do anything except rest your hands on top of the steering wheel until directed otherwise.
Didn’t know that, did you? Neither did we.
FIVE BEST THINGS TO DO
1. Pull to the right at the first safe opportunity, then turn off your engine.
If it’s not a safe place to stop, Oregon’s Lt. Gregg Hastings wants you to activate your right-turn signal, then drive slowly to a safer place. “A safer place, by the way, isn’t a considerable distance down a dark side road, driveway, or alley,” he says. “Keep in mind that traffic-related officer deaths jumped 16 percent in 2006,” Hastings adds.
2. Stay in your car with your seatbelt fastened. Roll down your window. Turn off the radio. Don’t even think about touching your cell phone.
“When a motorist climbs out of his vehicle,” says New Jersey’s Sgt. Stephen Jones, “it may give the impression he’s aggressive or has something to hide in the vehicle. I remember a man who briskly walked back to my car. I ordered him back, and he kept trying to give me his credentials at the rear of his car. The source of his consternation was two marijuana plants partly under a cloth in his back seat.”
“I pulled over a guy in a Jeep CJ, and he exited his vehicle,” recalls New Mexico’s Lt. Richard Anglada. “That’s when I realized his Jeep was rolling back toward my brand-new police car. Summoning all my strength, I had to hold his Jeep from rolling while I told him to set his brake—another reason we want people to stay in their cars.”
“Roll down your window completely,” adds Sergeant Jones. “Nothing’s more frustrating than trying to speak through a slightly cracked window. If you only give me an inch-wide gap, you hinder my ability to determine your sobriety and are more likely to be invited to continue the conversation outside your car.”
If you don’t leave your seatbelt on, the officer may also assume you were driving unbelted, thus another ticket.
There are exceptions to the stay-in-your-car rule, however. “We always ask the driver to exit the vehicle with his license, registration, and proof of insurance,” says Louisiana Trooper Johnnie Brown. What if you’re not sure whether to stay put or climb out? “Just sit still,” Brown says, “and it won’t be long before we’ll tell you what we want.”
3. Place your hands on top of the steering wheel and sit quietly. Ask passengers to remain silent.
“Whatever dangers we face, they will be channeled through the hands,” says Sergeant Jones. “We’d like to see the hands of every person in the car, frankly.”
Although they don’t insist on it, Lieutenant Hastings, as well as most other troopers, greatly prefer that you tell them where you’re about to reach. “It puts me at ease if you say, ‘I’m going to reach for my wallet now,’ ” he says, “or, ‘I need to open the glove box, okay?’ ”
4. Retrieve license, registration, and proof of insurance only when asked to do so.
Illinois M.Sgt. Luis Gutierrez appreciates it if you turn on your four-way flashers and your interior lights, especially at night. And Lieutenant Hastings strongly advises that you know where your documents are before you’re stopped. “If you start fumbling around, it suggests the car may not be yours, or that you may not have a license, or that you’re hoping the officer won’t see what you’ve hidden in the car,” he says. “And when you find your documents, don’t throw them at me.”
“I find it funny when a driver is reluctant to open his glove box, usually because he doesn’t want me to see what’s in there,” says Lieutenant Anglada. “He’ll open it as slowly as possible to avoid anything falling out. From my vantage, I usually see the contraband before he does.”
Adds Florida Trooper Larry Coggins, “A traffic stop is not the time to clean out your car, sorting through 10 years’ worth of registrations and insurance cards. Also, tell me immediately if you have a gun [legal or otherwise] anywhere on you or in the vehicle.”
“Never reach under your seat,” adds Sergeant Jones, “and never reach into the passenger area.”
“I stopped a motorist for speeding, and he was a security guard,” remembers Trooper Brown. “He exited the vehicle with his service revolver on his side. I made him place his hands on his head, then removed the weapon from his holster, removed the bullets, and placed the revolver separate from the bullets in the passenger compartment. Any weapon—gun, knife, pepper spray, whatever—tell me first.”
5. Answer questions succinctly. Avoid arguing, cursing, or interrupting when the officer speaks to you.
“Don’t assert your disgust about traffic laws,” suggests Trooper Coggins. “There’s nothing we can do about the laws, and the side of the highway is no place to argue your case. Save it for court.”
“Arguing with a trooper about speed,” says Sergeant Jones, “is like spitting into the wind.”
“Be civil,” advises Trooper Brown. “I stopped a pizza-delivery vehicle for 60 mph in a 45 zone. The driver told me to hurry up, that he had a pizza to deliver in 30 minutes or less. I asked for registration and proof of insurance, and he didn’t have either. I informed him I’d have to tow his vehicle for not having the required paperwork. He began to curse at me. After a brief inspection of the vehicle, he received seven tickets.”
FIVE WORST THINGS TO DO
1. Don’t slam on your brakes when you see the flashing lights, and don’t continue driving for an extended distance.
“At times, those actions are perceived as intentional,” says Lieutenant Hastings. “They just place an officer on edge.”
2. Do not jump out of the vehicle, do not make any sudden movements, and do not approach the officer.
“I pulled over a ’60s-model Chevy truck one night,” recalls Lieutenant Anglada, “and the driver gets out and is running toward my car with his hands wrapped in a blanket. I feared he was concealing a weapon. So I drew my side arm and ordered him to show me his hands. Turned out that his old truck didn’t have a heater—he was freezing.”
“Motorists should try to put themselves in my place,” suggests Trooper Coggins. “Just because I stopped a guy for speeding, it still runs through my mind that he might be fleeing a crime scene, might be a wanted fugitive, impaired, a kidnapper with a body in the trunk, a carjacker who hasn’t been called in yet—I just don’t know.”
3. You can complain, you can proffer wild explanations, but not for long.
Lieutenant Anglada claims way too often to have heard the excuse, “I was speeding because I had to go to the bathroom.” He recalls a woman who used that justification, then exited her car. “She asked if I’d hold a blanket around her while she squatted to relieve herself,” Anglada recalls. “I advised her to stroll off into the bushes while I waited. She still got the ticket. Over the years, officers develop an excellent ear for sincerity.”
“We stress to our troopers not to issue ‘attitude tickets,’ ” says Lieutenant Hastings. “But we can take only so much complaining before we’ve heard enough.”
4. Do not lie. If you were speeding, admit it. If you honestly have no clue why you were stopped, wait for the officer to tell you.
“There’s no substitute for frankness, but often we just see freakiness,” says Sergeant Jones. “Don’t respond with, ‘Why’d you stop me? Don’t you have criminals to catch?’ That’s a sure-fire way to receive justice rather than mercy. And think again if you believe you’ve come up with an excuse for speeding that we haven’t heard.”
“If people are honest and admit they’re wrong,” says Lieutenant Anglada, “90 percent of the time I’ll drop their speed or just give them a warning. If the person lies or accuses the officer of being wrong, 99 percent of the time the driver is going to get the ticket with no break.”
5. Do not show your contempt by peeling away after the stop.
Says Lieutenant Hastings, “Squealing your tires, tossing gravel at me, cutting off other motorists as you pull back on the highway—that’ll get you another several minutes with the same officer who just stopped you.”