One goal of traffic safety education (TSE) is to instill a sense of personal responsibility on the novice driver. An outcome of that may be to produce a driver who will drive responsibly and avoid altercations with the law and those who enforce it. However, even when a motorist obeys all traffic laws, it is possible to have contact with law enforcement. There are a variety of reasons a person may be "pulled over" for a traffic stop. Examples include: speeding, failure to perform a function, or the driver fits the description of a suspect. Not all traffic stops, however, are for a negative consequence. Examples include: the officer may think you are in trouble, need help or are otherwise at risk.
Studies have shown the majority of law-abiding citizens form their perceptions of the police based on the 10 minute traffic stop. (Woodhull, A. 1994) A traffic stop may be the only contact some citizens ever have with law enforcement. By the time a student enters TSE, they have probably formed an opinion of law enforcement personnel from family or media. While this project cannot replace actual face-to-face contact between students and law enforcement, it can provide useful information and an awareness of the rights and responsibilities of both parties involved in the stop.
In 1999 alone, there were 43,800,000 contacts made with police across the United States. (US Department of Justice) Traffic stops accounted for fully 52% of all those contacts. In Washington state alone, 813,350 motorists were contacted for traffic violations. Of those, 359,220 citations were issued. (Washington State Patrol) That means about 1 of every 5.17 licensed drivers in Washington was stopped by police and 1 of every 11.69 were issued a citation.
Recently there has been speculation and debate on issues such as racial profiling, primary seat belt laws, "pretextual" traffic stops, etc. Some question what authority police have for stopping a motorist and what they can do during a traffic stop. As reported by the Seattle Times, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld pretextual traffic stops by a 5-4 majority, but was declared unconstitutional by the Washington state Supreme Court. Justice Richard Saunders in the ruling writes "The court said "pretextual" traffic stops amount to warrantless searches or seizures in violation of the state constitution’s Article 1, Section 7. That section says: "No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law". (The Seattle Times) The ruling was seen as a hamper to police who use this technique to help detect crime.
Other recent debates have been whether or not police officers can order drivers and passengers out of their vehicles during a traffic stop. In a recent case in Maryland where Attorney General Janet Reno spoke as "a friend-of-the-court", the justices said the need to protect police officer’s safety justifies the "minimal" intrusion on a passenger’s rights. (Jet) Legislation passed and officers are allowed to order passengers out of the vehicle.
The last two examples have shown two major concerns for both police and motorists. It is assumed a detailed example of how each party should respond to the stop would benefit both.
Motorists that are stopped by police may feel confused, anxious, or even angry like they are being picked on or that police should be focusing on other forms of crime like a burglary or homicide. Some experts claim a mock traffic stop in TSE courses will help reduce some of the anxieties motorists experience. Drivers need to be assured that:
1) Police will provide their name upon request
2) If not in uniform, police will present proper identification to verify they are a police officer.
3) In unmarked vehicles they will still display emergency lights.
4) Police will inform the person of the reason for being stopped
5) Police will only arrest the person when they have probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime.
Officers have a great deal of discretion on whether or not they write a ticket. The type of violation, known driving history, and the driver’s attitude can all be considered before a ticket is written. Many officers will agree the driver’s attitude has a big influence on their decision. Unfortunately many motorists feel police should concentrate on "more important things" than enforcing traffic laws. Some drivers feel that they may be singled out or even inconvenienced by the stop, leading to inappropriate driver behavior toward the officer. Every officer has encountered a difficult motorist at one time or another. Difficult motorists could be grouped in the following categories: (Woodhull, A. 1994)
1) Excuse givers - those who feel they have the perfect reason for breaking the law.
2) Authority figures - citizens who think they are above the law.
3) Hostile/aggressive bullies - those who threaten with inappropriate comments or mannerisms
4) The know it all ("roadside attorneys") - those who challenge the validity of the law
5) Perception challengers - those who challenge what you claim…"the light was yellow"
6) Resisters - those who give you the silent treatment or won’t roll down the window
7) Prejudice claimers-state you pulled them over because of their race or the type of car they drive
Unfortunately officers receive less training in communication skills than other aspects of the job; yet they have to deal with difficult motorists on a daily basis. Sgt. Ray Griffin of the Gainesville Police Department states "The vital communication skill an officer must use each day is often the most neglected area of training." (Woodhull, A. 1994)
1) Humanize yourself
2) Use listening and empathy skills
3) Create a cooperative, working relationship
4) Use humor
5) Show concern
Traffic stops are inherently dangerous and pose a significant threat to the physical safety of law enforcement officers. It is not uncommon for routine traffic stops to escalate into a violent situation. During a ten year period from 1988 to 1997, 688 police officers were killed. Eighty-nine (12.9 percent) of these killings occurred during routine traffic stops. A total of 621,244 assaults were committed against police officers during this same ten-year period, 58, 502 (9.4 percent) were committed during traffic stops. (Lichtenberg, S. 2001)
One of the first and foremost responsibilities of the motorist is to be cooperative. Not that being polite is going to get you out of the ticket, but it can make the stop go smoother. The following list of suggestions will help make the situation safer for both the motorist and the officer. (US Department of Transportation)
1) When you see emergency lights/and or hear a siren, find a safe place to pull over and stop. Officers are trained to scope out the optimum location for the stop before turning on their emergency equipment. This is one reason why there are times when officers may follow a violator for a long distance before initiating the stop.
2) Stay in your vehicle unless the officer asks you to get out. If there are any passengers, they should do the same. Encourage them to be quiet and cooperate with the officer’s instructions. If the officer wants you to get out, they will ask you to. Many criminals exit their car to try to prevent the officer from seeing what they have in their possession.
3) Keep your hands on the steering wheel or dash so the officer can see them. This makes the officer feel more comfortable because he/she can see your hands.
4) Wait for the officer to ask you for your license, registration and insurance before you reach for them.You may think you are doing the officer a favor by having them ready, but they may think you are reaching for something else, like a gun.
5) If you feel the reason for the stop is vague or unclear, you can ask the officer for details. If you disagree, now is not the time to argue. You will have the opportunity to contest the citation in court if needed.
6) If you are issued a citation, sign the citation whether you agree, or not.Accepting it or signing it is not an admission of guilt.
Additional considerations should be taken if the stop occurs at night as nighttime stops pose additional risks.
1) After you pull over, turn on your dome light. This lets the officer know you have nothing to hide and are willing to cooperate.
2) Prepare to be "blinded" since police will utilize every light source (spot light, headlights, and "take-down" lights) available on the front of their car.
3) Realize the officer(s) will be using a flashlight to look around inside your car.
Traffic stops can be a dangerous situation for motorists and law enforcement alike. For the officer(s) there is a greatly heightened sense of awareness, suspicion, and fear. For the driver, emotions such as fear, anger, and confusion may become overwhelming. These emotions can be magnified for the novice driver.
By providing the novice driver with a general knowledge about traffic stops and suggestions on how to make it safe and efficient, it will help reduce the likelihood of a negative experience and improve police/citizen relations.
It is suggested officers use one or more of the following techniques during a traffic stop, especially those with an emotional or verbally confrontational driver: (Woodhull, A. 1998) law enforcement is a time proven method of increasing motorist safety, reducing the incidence of impaired and aggressive driving, and increasing the apprehension of dangerous criminals. Motorists involved in a traffic stop (even receiving a citation) should try to find the "positive" in the traffic stop. The incident should be used to make oneself a better motorist. Enforcing traffic laws help keep everyone safer.
Contacts between police and the public: Findings from the 1999 national survey. (1999) US Department of Justice: Office of Justice Statistics.
Court says police can order passengers out of car during traffic stop. (1997)
Department of Transportation. (2001). The traffic stop ‘ you: Improving communications between citizens and law enforcement [Brochure].
Lichtenberg, I. D., ‘ Smith, A. (2001) How dangerous are routine police-citizen traffic stops? A research note. Journal of Criminal Justice 29, 419-428.
State high court limits police on traffic stops. (2001) The Seattle Times
Washington State Patrol Traffic Activity. (2000)
What To Do When Stopped By The Police. Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Woodhull, A. V. (July 1994) Effective police communication in traffic stops. The Police Journal, 237-242.
Woodhull, A V. (October 1998) Traffic stops and the emotional driver. The Police Journal, 375-376
Note: The following article was written in conjunction with a PowerPoint lesson that can be used in Traffic Safety Education courses (available upon request). The goal of this project was to create an awareness of the traffic stop and provide some general suggestions on how to respond appropriately to a police traffic stop, regardless of the reason for the stop. This project is not intended to be legal advice nor does it attempt to help a motorist get out of a ticket. It is intended to educate drivers on the responsibilities of both parties involved—the motorist and the law enforcement officer. It should also be noted that traffic stops may differ slightly depending on environment, jurisdictions, and laws that vary from state to state.
Scott Calahan, Coordinator: Traffic Safety Education, Central Washington University; Kelly Kersten, Coordinator: AUAP Driving Program, Central Washington University