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Putting the Brakes on Traffic Stop Trouble

Motorists pulled over for a ticket can help avert bigger problems by staying calm and keeping hands in sight.

November 01, 1996|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officer Steve Dell has pulled over so many speeders in the course of his 28-year career that by now it might seem mundane.

But each time the Los Angeles traffic cop approaches a stopped vehicle, he is still gripped by feelings of uncertainty. He still braces for trouble.

During one incident last December, Dell recalls walking up to a minivan he had flagged down during rush hour for a moving violation. In the darkness, coming up on the van from the rear, he saw the lone occupant inexplicably disappear behind the right front seat.

"I thought he was going for a weapon," Dell said. "I got in the defensive mode and the adrenaline started to pump. I yelled at him to freeze.

"I had my hand ready" on the gun, he said.

As it turned out, the driver was trying to do the right thing by retrieving his license and car registration from the other side of the vehicle to have it ready for inspection.

That is precisely how well-intentioned individuals risk turning a routine traffic stop into a tragedy, police say--they don't know what to do after they are stopped.

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Knowing well that many unwary officers have been killed or seriously hurt by fleeing criminals in just such routine traffic stops, many police officers are on the alert for trouble each time they approach a car.

Actions that can alarm them include:

* Making sudden or furtive movements.

* Getting out of your vehicle before being asked.

* Putting your hands where they can't be seen.

* Being impolite and uncooperative.

"It boils down to a safety thing," said Alex Carroll, a Santa Barbara resident who speaks for the National Motorists Assn., which frequently objects to traffic laws and the way they are enforced. "Make any false moves whatsoever and the officer is alerted."

Carroll's advice:

When you see the flashing red lights in your rear-view mirror, pull off safely to the right shoulder. Keep your hands at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel and sit tight until the officer gets to your window and gives instructions.

Otherwise, Carroll said, you could find yourself "face down on the concrete with a boot in the middle of the back and in handcuffs."

The California Highway Patrol is not quite as dramatic, but is grimly serious about the importance of reacting correctly.

Many people believe that getting out of their car and meeting an officer halfway shows courtesy. But "it's a myth," one CHP official said.

The CHP encourages motorists to stay in their cars for several reasons, including:

* Cutting the risk of the driver getting hit by passing motorists.

* Reducing distractions to drivers on the road.

* Avoiding the impression that the driver is a threat to the officer, who must also must keep an eye on any other occupants of the vehicle and approaching traffic.

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Tinted glass also makes police nervous. By law, the front windows should not be tinted. If they are, the officer may be concerned that the driver cannot be seen clearly. Even legal darker windows in the back can worry officers because they make it harder to see anyone in the rear seat. If you have darkly tinted windows, consider rolling them down and turning on the inside car lights.

Once you are asked for your license and registration, the Motorists Assn. advises going out of your way to reduce the officer's apprehension, making it clear this is just a routine traffic stop, nothing to worry about.

Tell the officer your registration is in the glove compartment, or wherever you keep it. Ask if you can open it. Do everything slowly. Never make a sudden move in which your hands unexpectedly disappear.

The Motorists Assn. advises against trying to plead your case on the roadside. The association encourages its members to fight tickets in court, not on the spot.

Another tip: Police say it's counterproductive for those trying to dodge a ticket to be too nice; don't call the officer "sir" or "ma'am" in every sentence, which many officers ignore as transparent "bootlicking."

The bottom line: Keep the tension level low. It may or may not get you out of a citation, but it's a way to avoid turning a ticket into a serious misunderstanding that you and the officer may both regret.

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