Essential Traffic Stop Considerations

November 21, 2016

Through the years, I have been given a lot of ‘advice’ regarding how to conduct my traffic stops. Some of that advice has been good. And some of it has been, well … shortsighted and rigid.

Some agencies prefer their officers to perform stops in a certain way. Then they go silent on the topic once their officer is off of FTO. Unfortunately, that leads many officers to either do it one way (without knowing why) or to give very little thought on the matter entirely.

I am not trying to teach you tactics. While there are a couple of things I would like to never, ever see again, the one thing I do ask is for you to be deliberate in your actions.

Get out. Stop sitting in your car, especially in the driver’s seat when you don’t have a cover officer. We have all heard the term “fishbowl.” Well, that fishbowl is your car, especially at night. Everyone else can see in, but you have a difficult time seeing out. You have an even more difficult time getting out. Even if you do get out it is likely into traffic.

There is very little cover in the driver’s seat and not very much concealment.  If you do somehow make yourself invisible, it’s still obvious where you will be and where to aim in order to hit you.

In addition to being effectively trapped, it is difficult to move around inside. Have you ever tried to draw your weapon quickly while seated in your vehicle? (Please say, “yes.”) If so, you realize how difficult it can be. Car doors are very ineffective bullet-stoppers. Windshields are even less effective than doors. Get out of your car and put yourself somewhere deliberately.

Get away from the rear of your vehicle. If you’ve read me before, you already know this. Stay away from the direct rear of your vehicle. Have you seen a grape smashed in between two bricks? You are the grape. Every vehicle that is approaching or passing you is a threat to your safety. The driver may not even be trying to kill you but the rampant inattention and ineptitude of today’s drivers are just as dangerous. You shouldn’t have to pay attention to each vehicle as it approaches because you are in a vulnerable position. Keep your attention where it belongs by design. Protect yourself with your position as well as with your attention.

Choose your position wisely. So the driver’s seat and the direct rear are out—what’s left? Lots.

Choose something that works for you depending on current traffic conditions, availability of backup, and the occupancy of the vehicle that has your attention. Personally, I like to be at the passenger-side, rear-quarter panel in many instances. I can see over the roof and hood of my vehicle and into the other vehicle. I have an engine and a wheel in between myself and the other vehicle. I also have a straighter route away from the roadway due to incoming objects that will have the right of way. This approach works well for sedans, but not so well for SUVs due to their height.

I highly recommend speaking with your trusted peers on the matter so you can get several thoughtful viewpoints and make an informed decision for yourself.

Have a plan. The last point I would like to make is this. We conduct immediate-action drills at and en route to calls. We like to have plans and checklists and regulations about what to do when “X” happens, but I have spoken to very few recruits or peers that plan for the worst at every traffic stop. In other words: If this situation goes south, where (specifically) am I going to go?

Bullets and vehicles are both hazardous to your health. They can also come from many directions. A location that will protect you from both would be ideal even if that protection only lasts long enough to reload or to figure out a better plan. Is there a rock, tree, culvert, guardrail, or bridge abutment that I can use to shelter in place for as long as it takes to survive the initial onslaught?

The time to find this is not when you are under duress. The time to locate this is while you control the situation. In other words, before you need it. Do this at EVERY traffic stop. For that matter, do it at every call!

In those rare occasions where you look around and see no options at all, it would be good to know that up front. Knowing beforehand that you will have to stand your ground and be better or faster than the other guy is better than having to look around first and then come to that awful conclusion. I was taught that I should “treat everyone like a million bucks, but have a plan to kill everyone I meet.” I believe that this applies here as well.  Have a plan to survive and escape every encounter.


Be deliberate in every task. Don’t fall into the mindset that any traffic stop is routine. Random, unsupported actions performed on autopilot are dangerous. Doing something because that is the way you have always done it is the very definition of complacency. If you doubt it, refer to Webster and see for yourself.

In police work, complacency is the monster that lulls you first and then eventually eats you. Have a reason for everything you do and know what that reason is so that you can act quickly and so that you can be articulate when answering the inevitable questions that will follow in the wake of a dramatic event.

I will elaborate on this soon. Until then, be your Brother’s keeper out there my friends!


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