What You Need to Know If You're Pulled Over by the Police

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv ; Updated June 15, 2017
Police traffic stop at night with motorcycle pulled over

Traffic stops can be hazardous for motorists and police officers alike. Here some simple steps to take that will help keep you safe.

The Background

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the most common interaction between a civilian and the police is a routine traffic stop. In the vast majority of these interactions, the result is just that: routine. But a small number of these stops end in tragedy for both parties.

In 2016, of the more than 130 police officers killed in the line of duty, 26 of these deaths occurred during a traffic stop. The available data for civilian deaths are less precise, but over three years, from 2015 through 2017, 358 civilians were killed by police in an event that included a car.

The Takeaway

We know that many Americans, and particularly minority Americans, are very concerned about traffic stops that end in death. The DOJ statistics indicate that black and hispanic motorists are three times more likely to be pulled over than white motorists.

Statistically speaking, the possibility of a traffic stop ending in the death of either a civilian or a policeman is extremely rare. Adding together police deaths and civilian deaths, traffic-stop-associated deaths – as a percentage of the general population in 2016 – were a little under one in four million.

Yet, despite the rarity of the occurrence, it has become a headline-grabbing topic of debate. But the takeaway here is that while most Americans are very aware of the danger of being killed by police in a traffic stop despite the rarity of occurrence, relatively little has been written about how police view the danger. A 2010 article in "Police," an online magazine written for and frequently by police, maintains that police view it with the same awareness of a fatal outcome as civilians.

Keeping the Police Perspective in Mind

That most motorists have little or no awareness of how police view the dangers of "the routine traffic stop,' is a real problem. One of the first things to know about a traffic stop is that the policeman executing the stop may be hyper-vigilant and possibly fearful. Behavior by a motorist that in other circumstances might be seen as entirely benign can appear threatening, and police are trained to respond quickly to a threat. Therefore, if you're stopped, always keep the police perspective in mind. If you're wary of what may come next, so is the officer that stopped you. One veteran Los Angeles Police Sergeant told this writer that while police generally dislike responding to domestic disputes more than anything else, making traffic stops comes in a close second. Police deaths from traffic stops may be rare, but they're still one of the leading causes of police deaths.

Some Useful Traffic Stop Bullet Points

If you've been pulled over, here are some suggestions designed to keep you safe; they're mostly in sequential order:

  • Once you know you're being pulled over, put on your righthand turn signal. This tells the officer that you accept the pullover.
  • Pull over as far as you can. The officer will appreciate it. One of the hazards of the traffic stop for police is being hit by passing cars.
  • Put on your blinkers when you've stopped. This makes the stop a little more visible to passing motorists and, again, signals that you're cooperative.
  • Roll down your window. Then do nothing and wait for the officer to walk to the window. Reaching in your glove compartment for your registration may be well-intended, but it can look like someone reaching for a gun.
  • Early in the stop – especially while you're waiting for the officer to come to the window – keep your hands in sight. Gripping the steering wheel achieves this without making a big deal of it; put your hands on the dashboard only if you're told to do that.  
  • Before leaving his vehicle, the officer will already have checked the registration in the police database. He'll want to see it later, but usually his first request will be to see your driver's license. Acknowledge the request as briefly as possible (officer's don't like to be chatted up – they're at work): "Sure, no problem," is a good first response.
  • Tell the officer what you plan to do next. "My driver's license is in my wallet; I'll get it out." This explains why you're reaching behind you and helps reduce the apparent threat level.
  • When you're asked for registration, explain where your registration is (usually in the glove department) and tell the officer, "I'll get it now."
  • Don't negotiate the ticket. It almost never works and from the police perspective it can signal that the you're becoming argumentative, therefore a possible threat. If you really have a good case, you can argue it in traffic court. 
  • A frequent police question is "Do you know why I pulled you over?" If you're not sure, say so; if you think you know why, it does no harm to admit it. You're going to get the ticket anyway, and acknowledging your responsibility further reduces the threat level.
  • Whether or not you say anything once you're handed the ticket is up to you, but keep it short. "OK" and an affirmative nod is sufficient.  

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.