There are few things more nerve-wracking, or more anxiety-producing for even the most law-abiding driver, than seeing the flashing red and blue lights of a police car in your rear-view mirror.
It doesn’t always have to be a harrowing experience, even if you know that you were driving well over the speed limit, or that your registration is expired, or heaven forbid, you’ve had a few too many cocktails and are behind the wheel anyway.
There are a few simple rules to follow to make sure the experience doesn’t have to be any more unpleasant than it already is — considering that it’s likely you will come away with a fat ticket.
We sought the advice of a former Virginia State Trooper, now retired and working happily at an intelligence analyst job for a federal agency in Washington, D.C. He asked that we not use his real name, “because I don’t want people to think I’m trying to draw attention to myself,” he said. He chose a colorful alias, asking that we just refer to him as Trooper Tom. Here are his six tips.
Pull Over in a Safe Area
First of all, the most important rule to follow is to pull over in a safe area, as soon as it is reasonable and safe to do so. “Don’t pull over in a place that is going to put you or the officer in danger,” says Police Officer Tom — like a narrow left-hand-lane shoulder on a highway. “If you do that, the officer is not going to get out and risk being hit — he’s going to get on the loudspeaker and tell you to move over to the right shoulder, and then you have to negotiate traffic to try to cross the highway. That can be aggravating, and you don’t want to lock yourself into a ticket by making the officer mad,” he says.
Secondly, don’t coast for several blocks before pulling over. “If you just keep coasting, the cop is going to think, ‘What is this guy doing?’ He may think you’re stalling because you’re trying to stash something,” warns the police officer. “If you pass a few safe places to pull over, the officer is definitely going to think you’re up to something, and that raises suspicion.”
Keep the Engine Running
Surprisingly, Police Officer Tom also advises you not to turn off your engine, especially if you’re driving an old beater that’s not reliable. “I generally didn’t like the citizen to turn off his engine, because if it’s an older car, it might not start again, and then you’re in a situation where you have to wait for the guy to call a buddy or call a wrecker, and he’s mad because you stopped him — I’d just as soon not have to negotiate all that,” says the police officer.
Keep Your Hands on the Wheel
Keep your hands on the wheel as the trooper or officer approaches your vehicle. “That’s how people kill you — with their hands,” muses Police Officer Tom. “They can reach for a weapon or the gear shift, which can turn the car into a weapon. We always focus on the driver’s hands, and if they’re not on the wheel, we’re immediately more apprehensive, and that doesn’t help your situation if you’re the driver.”
Stay in the Car
You should always stay in the car. “I didn’t want anyone out of the car, ever,” says Police Officer Tom emphatically. “If they get out of the car, I’m thinking they have something to be afraid of, like they’re wanted, or intoxicated, and in either case, that’s a safety issue for the officer,” warns the police officer. “I don’t care if you’re the baddest officer there is, there’s always someone out there who’s badder than you, and if we can keep them inside the car, that’s the best way to keep from being injured. If they’re inside the car, they can’t fight you and maybe grapple for your gun and shoot you.”
Be Careful What You Say
Being polite to the officer isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite, concedes Tom. “I never demanded respect,” the police officer insists. “I only didn’t want dis-respect. If you want to be rude and yell and complain and say you’re going to file a complaint against me, that’s fine, I heard that all the time — just don’t get physical. And don’t use curse words in an aggressive way, because in Virginia, anyway, that can get you arrested for disorderly conduct.”
The police officer details some of his more exciting or amusing traffic stops — that is, when people did not take the advice he shared above, and paid the price. Once, he pulled a woman over on the highway for violating the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) law. In Virginia, during morning and evening rush hours, vehicles traveling in the left-hand of some highways near Washington, D.C. are required to have more than one occupant. The ordinance is aimed at cutting down congestion by encouraging more drivers to car pool.
“She got out of the car and she was immediately extremely irritated,” recalls the police officer in his Tennessee-by-way-of-Virginia accent. “I guess she was en route to a job interview. Now, I can put up with a lot of static, so it takes a lot to get me excited over an HOV ticket, but she was is in my face immediately, and she starts cussing and complaining, and she’s actually making the process take longer because she won’t let me write the ticket. I asked her to get back in her car, and she did, but in 15 seconds, she came roaring out again.
“This happened several times, and her anger kept escalating, and she kept yelling and cussing,” continues Police Officer Tom with a wry laugh. “So finally, I had to roll my window up while she was yelling at me, just so I could finish writing the ticket. Well, I guess she didn’t like that because she yanked my door open and said, ‘Don’t you ignore me, you m——- f——!’ Well, that was it, she crossed the line there, so I cuffed her and arrested her for disorderly conduct and took her in.”
The bottom line is that the original HOV violation was just a $50 fine, but the disorderly conduct conviction would have given her a criminal record, explains the police officer. “And she had a job with the federal government, so a criminal conviction would have meant losing her security clearance, and therefore her job. So during negotiations between her attorney and the commonwealth prosecutor, she eventually paid a $2,500 fine in exchange for lowering the charge to a careless driving violation. So that turned out to be a pretty expensive outburst on her part.”
One serious but amusing tale involved a driver who was “power-braking” his pick up truck outside a raucous Springfield, VA bar at 3:00 a.m. He was extravagantly spinning and screeching his tires “and just filling the air with blue smoke and burning rubber,” recalls the police officer. “And he’s doing it right in front of me at a traffic light. So I pulled him over, and he was clearly intoxicated, but he wasn’t belligerent or anything — he was a nice guy, an ‘ol’ country boy. But he failed every field-sobriety test I gave him.” This included a breathalyzer test, which revealed that he had a .18 blood alcohol level, more than double the legal limit for driving.
But the guy kept insisting that he be allowed to perform “his own test” which he claimed would prove he was not drunk. So finally, just out of curiosity, the police officer acquiesced — with no guarantees. “So the guy takes off running, and all of a sudden he goes into this cartwheel/back flip, with his cowboy boots on, and his legs go counter-clockwise, and he lands it, perfectly, in his cowboy boots, like he was a gymnast at the Olympics or something.”