What Catches the Attention of Traffic Police?
by Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor of Edmunds
Actually, the real reason for this list is to stop you from being pulled over by the police. By seeing driving behavior from the traffic cop's point of view, you can avoid encounters with the law. A little extra awareness could help you keep points off your driving record and keep down the cost of your car insurance.
Three police agencies and two independent traffic experts loaned their expertise for this list of the most common traffic stops. There were some minor variations in opinion, depending on the police agency. But this list shows you the things to watch out for if you want to avoid unwanted contact with the boys (and girls) in blue.
1. Speeding. This was on everyone's list, and the reason is simple. The faster you go, the longer it takes to react to an unexpected situation, whether it's a pedestrian stepping into the street or another car making an unexpected lane change, says Detective William Bustos, officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department's traffic detectives. Braking distances also increase as speed builds, and it takes about 120 feet for a vehicle to stop when it's traveling 60 mph. Speeding is common in Bustos' jurisdiction, the San Fernando Valley, which has 230 square miles of mostly wide, straight streets. As recently as the early 2000s, the area attracted frequent street races that played like scenes out of The Fast and the Furious and its sequels.
People are driving faster than they did in the past, particularly on the freeways in the busy area of south Los Angeles, notes Edward McElroy, a California Highway Patrol officer. "People seem impatient; their commutes are longer than ever before," McElroy says. CHP officers write tickets, particularly for speeding, in an attempt to control the "mileage death rate" — the number of people who die per freeway mile. That's a sobering thought.
Alex Carroll, author of Beat the Cops, which has sold more than 250,000 copies, offers an opinion on how far over the speed limit a driver can go without being pulled over: 5-7 mph "easy," he says. The officers interviewed for this story confirmed that there's a "buffer," but added that the decision to cut a speeder some slack is up to the officer's discretion.
2. Illegal cell phone use. Distracted driving, usually because of texting or talking on a mobile phone, is high on the list of ticket bait developed by our experts. Although just a few states ban all cell phone use in cars, more than 30 have banned texting behind the wheel. "People think, 'I'll just make a quick call,' or 'This text will only take a second,'" Bustos says. "But you have to drive as if your life depended on it — because it does."
Sgt. Jeff Wiles, who heads the Santa Monica Police Department's traffic division and patrols the city on a BMW motorcycle, says illegal cell phone use is common — and responsible for a lot of trouble. "The really horrific stories about texting make the news," he says, "But we see accidents and even just fender-benders from it every day."
3. Hazardous driving. This is a catch-all category for common violations that each of our experts noted. Wiles ticks off his favorites without hesitation: stop sign and stoplight violations, improper lane changes, illegal U-turns, failures to yield and unsafe speeds. CHP officer McElroy says he sees people who apparently have forgotten they're driving cars: They're busy shaving, eating and even changing clothes. And what exactly is the violation you're committing when you're changing clothes in a car? "Unsafe speed," he says. "There is no safe speed for pulling a shirt off over your head while driving."
4. Equipment violations. Everyone knows the movie scene where a cop smashes a taillight to justify a traffic stop. But in real life, there's little need for that, our experts say. People commit a multitude of code violations all on their own. Leading the list are heavily tinted windows, burned-out headlights, broken windshields, expired tags, the lack of a front license plate (in California and some other states) and loud exhaust modifications.
5. Following too closely and improper lane changes. This one was a tie. Both of these violations are forms of hazardous driving that our police sources specifically called out. McElroy says that on the freeways of Los Angeles, following too closely can easily cause accidents by shortening a driver's reaction time. Combine that with cell phone use or texting and it is a recipe for disaster, he says.
An improper lane change means cutting someone off or changing lanes without looking first, Bustos says. Failure to signal can also be added to this ticket, he says, but it usually doesn't initiate the traffic stop — partly because the failure to signal is so common.
A Traffic Cop Critic's List
Police officers aren't the only ones keeping track of what gets drivers in trouble. Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, which is often critical of law enforcement's handling of traffic stops, listed some attention-getting moves that the police experts didn't mention, including:
Cruising in the left lane of a multilane highway instead of using it only to pass slower traffic on the right
Driving more slowly than the normal traffic flow
Peeling out from a stoplight or stop sign, and squealing tires in general
Racking up lots of unpaid parking or traffic violations
These are things that make your car stand out and catch an officer's eye. Biller adds that plastering the back of your car with offensive bumper stickers and decals will definitely draw unwelcome attention. Carroll agrees that this will increase the chances of a traffic stop, and adds, "This is particularly so if your sticker conflicts with the cop's views or is a rival of his favorite sports team."
Watch Your Mouth
Traffic stops often have a tipping point. Because officers have legal discretion in what they can cite you for, saying or doing the wrong thing can compound your problems. Carroll says that a traffic cop might add extra violations if the motorist is belligerent. Act like a jerk and Carroll says, "They'll write you up for everything else they can."
Say that a police officer uses this time-honored opening line: "Do you know why I stopped you?" Take a minute before you answer, Carroll says. If you admit guilt or name a specific speed that you were driving, your fate is sealed. Instead, respond courteously but remain vague, he advises. However, "If you have clearly done something wrong, and you sit there and you're evasive with the cops, it's not necessarily in your best interest," he says.
If you plan on contesting the ticket in court it's really better to say very little. The officer is expected to have a clear recollection of the traffic stop.
A lot of traffic-ticket gotchas — and serious accidents — begin with a frustrated, impatient driver. If you really don't want a ticket, try chilling out. Santa Monica officer Jeff Wiles offers this advice: "Put on a relaxing radio station or CD and be patient, because traffic is bad and there will be delays."