Nobody wants to be pulled over and given a traffic ticket. Honestly, it’s not exactly the kind of thing police look forward to either. However, enforcing traffic laws is an important part of protecting other motorists, and officers take this responsibility seriously.
The most important things to do when pulled over are to get as far to the right as possible, turn off your engine, place your hands on the wheel, and roll down the window. Then await instructions and, when asked to, produce your driver’s license and registration. Beyond that, do nothing else until the officer asks you to. It seems simple, but a lot of drivers make careless mistakes that can escalate the situation and result in a worse outcome for everyone.
As a former police officer who has written thousands of traffic tickets, here’s what every driver should avoid doing during a traffic stop.
Don’t keep driving. You see a police car with its lights on behind you and you hear the siren, right away you should pull over to the right. Regardless of whether you think you committed an offense or not, you need to move to the right. Do not keep driving.
Don’t get out of the car. Once pulled over, stay in the vehicle. No police officer wants you to get out of the car. This first action sets the tone for what’s going to happen next. When you are being stopped, the police will come up to you on your side, or maybe the passenger side depending on traffic and other situations.
Don’t leave the radio on. If you have the radio blasting or even just low in the background, it’s distracting and disrespectful. For young drivers, sometimes a person is so nervous they don’t realize their radio is on. But sometimes they don’t care. You want to establish respect for the officer and his or her job. Most times, when I found a driver with the radio on, I’d ask if they can turn it down. In my experience, no one has ever not complied with that. But in extreme cases, you can be arrested for disorderly conduct for refusing.
Don’t have a bad attitude. If you start getting curt, defensive or insulting, things are going to go downhill fast. Drivers need to remember that police are in control of the situation. And no officer wants a simple traffic matter to escalate. We want to be in and out.
Don’t ignore questions the police officers ask. You need to respond to the police officer with concise and direct answers. Don’t ignore the officer and try to take control of the conversation. That never works out well.
Don’t leave the engine on. A lot of drivers forget this, but it’s important. Turning off the engine tells the officer you are not likely to try and run away as the officer is approaching or heading back to his or her vehicle. While this rarely happens, it has happened before—including to me.
One time I pulled someone over on the entrance ramp to the Long Island Expressway for making an illegal left. He didn’t have his license on him. When I went to enter the information that he provided into my computer terminal, he took off. I didn’t bother to follow him, by the time I got onto the expressway he would have been half a mile away to try to chase him would have endangered others. But I had his license plate and wrote a report against him. A few days later he was arrested for something unrelated—shoplifting, I think. When they did, I was able to ID him and charge him for eluding police.
Don’t make unnecessary movements. I mentioned earlier keeping your hands on the steering wheel. This helps the officer feel safe. If your hands are low or you’re moving around, the officer may mistake you for hiding evidence or reaching for a gun. Now the officer will be on edge and this will make the whole encounter bad for everyone.
Don’t hesitate to record the police. You may not have expected to hear this, but feel free to record your interaction with police… as long as you are being compliant. Truth is, most officers are honest people and they should have nothing to hide. Police are used to cameras—body cams are becoming more common, and squad cars have had dash cams long before the general public was using them. If you feel you need to file a complaint against an officer due to his or her conduct, that video is either going to prove your case or disprove it. Either way is a good thing.
Don’t push a PBA card. First and foremost, those cards are issued to officers to give to family members. But sometimes it goes past that. Friends, distant cousins. When I used to hand out those cards, I would write on the card “brother in law” or whatever the relationship was. The purpose of those cards is to help those who have made an honest mistake to get off with a one-time warning. What it’s not for is someone who abuses the courtesy. It’s not uncommon for a young driver, pulled over for something like going 30 miles over the limit, to shove the card in your face. When that happens, I throw it right back at them.
The right way to use a PBA card is this: take it, place it behind your driver’s license, and hand the two to the officer together. The officer should see your license and your information first. The officer may then question you and ask how you know the person who gave you the PBA card. Keep in mind, this does not guarantee you will get out of the ticket. But it puts the odds more in your favor.
Driving is a luxurious privilege. You have to abide by the rules.
Sometimes people make honest mistakes, and if that person is respectful, an officer may use his or her judgment to let a person off with a warning. Following the above rules is no guarantee of leniency, but they certainly can help avoid escalating the situation.