Most drivers get stopped by police at some point during their driving careers. If you haven’t yet, and you are a good driver (with a hefty dose of good luck along with it), there’s a small chance that you may avoid being pulled over ever. But it’s more likely that you will get pulled over at some point, and every driver should know how to handle the situation. Knowing what to do and what not to do during a traffic stop makes the experience less uncomfortable, and it can help you get back on your way with a minimum of trouble and time lost. Here’s a brief guide.
Think About the Officer’s Point of View
A point many motorists are unaware of is how dangerous a traffic stop can be for a police officer. This is one of the most unpredictable duties that police have, second only to responding to domestic disputes. When you get pulled over, remember that the officer approaching your car has no idea who you are, if you are armed, if you are or will be violent or if you will create an unsafe situation in any way.
The procedures police officers follow when making traffic stops are intended to minimize the potential dangers involved. You can help by acting in ways that demonstrate you intend to cooperate and by allowing the officer to see clearly that you present no danger to them or to yourself.
Get Off the Road Safely
When you first see the flashing lights in your rearview mirror, don’t panic – but don’t delay in responding. Slow down and get off the road as quickly as you can do so in a safe way. If you are unable to pull over right away, turn your four-way flashers on to signal to the officer that you have seen them. Think about the officer’s safety as well as your own. Do your best to pull off in an area where the officer will not be in danger from passing traffic.
When you pull off the road, roll your window down and turn off the engine. If it’s dark outside, turn on the interior lights in your car. As the officer approaches your car, sit still and place your hands on the steering wheel where he or she can see them clearly. Don’t reach for anything or unbuckle your seatbelt as the officer is approaching your car because he or she can’t see what you’re doing with your hands.
Taking Care of Business
Wait to look for any documentation until you are asked for it. It may seem more efficient to pull out your license and registration before the officer approaches the car, but remember that they will be unable to tell if you are looking for documents or a weapon. Safety is more important than efficiency. If you need to open a purse or bag or get something out of the back seat of your car to get to your license, tell the officer so he or she knows what you are doing. Move slowly and deliberately.
Stay calm and polite. Arguing with an officer is not a way to get out of a ticket; on the contrary, making an officer angry is more likely to gain you extra fines rather than the reverse. On the other hand, being civil and apologizing for any mistakes may get you a warning instead of a ticket. If you intend to contest the ticket, remember that whatever you say to the officer can be admitted in court. You don’t have to admit to any wrongdoing, but whatever you say, be sure to be polite. When the officer releases you, restart your car and merge back into traffic when you can do so safely (and don’t forget to signal).
Know Your Rights as the Driver
For a simple traffic misdemeanor, being pulled over is usually not a difficult ordeal, and it is often best to cooperate with the officer. However, you do have rights in this situation. As mentioned before, you can wait until it is safe before pulling off the road, even if you need to drive some distance. You also do not need to answer an officer’s questions beyond producing your license and registration. You do not need to let an officer search your car unless they have a warrant, with some exceptions. For instance, if an illicit substance is visible in plain sight, or if an officer has probable cause to expect a crime has been committed, the officer has the right to search without a warrant. The ACLU has a more comprehensive list of your rights when stopped by the police.