Traffic Stop Do’s & Dont’s

here’s some advice – and insight into the police officer’s perspective – that may mean the difference between getting a warning or a ticket (or worse).

First, a little background. According to FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted reports, 62 officers were killed during traffic stops from 2003 to 2012 – that’s not including 34 others who died during & after car chases. In 2012 alone, 4,450 officers were wounded or assaulted in various manners during traffic stops.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re pulled over is – the cop has no idea who’s in the car. The driver, or one of the passengers, could be a fugitive who’d rather shoot a cop than risk arrest.


As soon as you think you’re getting pulled over, i.e. cop pulls a U-turn and gets behind you – turn on your hazards. This acknowledges that you’re aware of the situation, and intend to stop. As a bonus, if you manage to do this before the cruiser lights come on, this also informs the cop that you’re aware of the situation on the road, and aren’t driving distracted.


Choose a safe area to pull over – safe for you AND for the officer to walk up to your vehicle. Don’t stop in the right lane, don’t make the cop walk into traffic, they get antsy.

If there’s absolutely no room to pull over (i.e. bordered highway), but there’s a ramp or clearance coming up – turn on the hazards, roll down your window, and wave your hand to indicate that you’re acknowledging the stop but will proceed further to a safe area. Proceed at a slower than normal rate, to avoid having the cop think you’re making a getaway. Stop immediately if the cop directs you to (through the loudspeaker).

Any well-lit area with low traffic speeds, such as a gas station or parking lot, is a much better location to pull over into, than the side of a highway.


Can’t emphasize this enough. STAY. IN. THE. CAR. The last thing you want the cop to think is that you have something to hide, or worse yet, that you’re about to get confrontational.


Turn off the engine as soon as you come to a complete stop, and roll your window all the way down. As a bonus, take the keys out and put them on the roof. This sends a clear signal that you have absolutely no intention of running off, and since this is one of those things that’s more familiar to law enforcement and military personnel, may also send a signal that “you know something most civilians don’t”.

Exception: if you have a DVR / dashcam / other recording equipment that runs off the battery, turn the key to “Accessory” position and leave it in the ignition lock. This way, the engine is off, but the camera is still running. (And if you don’t have a DVR, there’s plenty of them on Amazon, starting at $ 40.


Turn off engine, roll down window, and turn on your dome lights. As soon as you come to a stop, turn off your engine and roll down your window. If it’s dark out, turn on your dome light so the officer can see what’s going on inside the vehicle as he approaches.

Stay calm. It’s common to get amped up whenever you get pulled over. Take some deep breaths and relax. Unless you’ve done something outright criminal (i.e. driving intoxicated, possessing illegal drugs, etc.) there’s nothing to be nervous about. The worst that can happen during a routine traffic stop is that you’ll have to pay a fine. Oh, and your insurance will probably go up. Pretty sucky, but not the end of the world.  If it helps, it’s good to remind yourself that the officer is probably nervous too.

Stay still and keep your hands on the steering wheel. Keep your hands resting on the wheel and remain still as the officer approaches your vehicle. You don’t want to give him or her any reason to believe you’re a threat.

If you plan on fighting your ticket, keep answers short and don’t directly admit wrongdoing. Everything you say to an officer is admissible in court, so if you plan on fighting your ticket, Andy suggests not saying anything that indicates you are guilty. Officers will typically ask questions to get some sort of admission out of you when they first walk up to your window. For example, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Don’t say, “I was speeding, sir.” Simply say, “No” or, “I don’t know.”

But sometimes, saying “I’m sorry” works. However, Andy states that sometimes it doesn’t pay to be coy like this with the officer, and that it’s better to just fess up and apologize. “If you accidentally roll through a stop sign and immediately apologize, they may let you off with a warning.” If you don’t plan on fighting your ticket, just say, “I’m sorry, officer. I was imagining Teddy Roosevelt with Sasquatch in a headlock. I’ll pay more attention next time.” I’ve gotten off with just a warning a few times by saying those words, showing the officer some courtesies, and being polite

Wait for the officer to ask for your documents. Don’t try to expedite the process by getting your license and registration ready while the officer approaches your car. For all he knows you could be reaching for a gun or trying to hide some sort of incriminating evidence. Wait until he or she gets to the window and asks for your documents.

Move deliberately. When you do reach to get your license and registration, do so deliberately. “A quick reach into the glove compartment for your insurance paperwork looks the same as a quick reach into your glove compartment for a weapon,” says Phil. If your wallet is in a gym bag in your backseat, let the officer know before you turn around and rummage for it. Quick Tip: Try to keep your glove compartment relatively organized, and your documents together, so that when you pull the box open, you don’t have to frantically sort through 20-year-old maps and wads of receipts to find your registration.

If you’re carrying a gun, let the officer know. Some states have laws that require concealed carry owners to inform officers that they’re carrying a gun anytime they get pulled over. These are called “must inform” states. Officers are allowed to ask for and hold the weapon for the duration of the stop.

Even if you don’t live in a “must inform” state, as a courtesy to the officer, you might want to disclose the fact that you’re carrying. Nothing puts an officer on red alert like seeing a “print” of a gun through a motorist’s clothes.

Return hands to the steering wheel. After you’ve handed the officer your paperwork, return your hands to the steering wheel. “It keeps them visible to the officer,” says Phil.

Be civil. Be polite and respectful in your communications with the officer. Yes, it sucks to get a ticket, but calling the officer names, threatening him, and being rude won’t get you anywhere. In fact, it could make things worse. If the officer happens to be a woman, refer to her as “officer” or “ma’am,” not “sweetheart” or “honey.” She’s an officer of the law, show some respect.

You don’t have to consent to a search. In order to search your vehicle without your consent, an officer needs probable cause – maybe he smells something in the car or sees a bottle on your seat. If he doesn’t have probable cause but wants to search your car anyway, he’ll need your consent and may ask you something like, “You don’t mind me taking a look in your car, do you?” Even if you haven’t done anything illegal, it’s usually a good idea to exercise your Fourth Amendment right in this situation and decline the search. “While you may believe you have nothing to hide, you never know what could come up.  Maybe a friend left an empty beer can in your back seat during a tailgate party, and the officer will charge you with an open container violation,” Andy explains. Politely decline the search by saying, “I don’t consent to a search, officer,” loud enough so it gets on the police recorder. That’s it.

Don’t argue. “The side of the road is not the place to argue a charge,” says Phil. If you want to contest the ticket, you can do so in court and in front of a judge.

Sign the citation. If the officer decides to issue a citation, he’ll ask you to sign it. Sign it. It’s not an admission of guilt, it’s just recognition that you’ve received the citation and that you promise to either 1) pay the fine or 2) show up to court on the designated date. “A signature on a citation in most jurisdictions is in lieu of you posting a cash bond. Posting a cash bond generally consists of a trip to the nearest jail or judge and may include a booking process and fingerprinting. It is always easier to sign the ticket,” says Phil.

Be safe when merging back into traffic. Phil recommends taking your time to store your belongings before you re-enter traffic. “If you’re upset, collect yourself before driving away.” When you’re ready, turn on your signal and merge back into traffic. This time, avoid any mental fight simulations involving Teddy Roosevelt and Sasquatch until you get home and are safely ensconced in your man chair. Stay safe out there.

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