By Jean Reynolds

Alertness, professionalism, and common-sense safety practices can help ensure officer safety during traffic stops. Well-formed safety habits allow officers to focus on the situation at hand so that they can look for what’s unexpected and unpredictable.

Because traffic stops are high-risk situations for law enforcement, officer safety should be a top priority any time you’re dealing with a traffic violation. Alertness, professionalism, and common-sense safety practices can minimize the risk to you and to the public.

It’s a good idea to follow a fixed set of steps so that you can focus on the situation at hand rather than trying to remember what to do next. But remember that it’s equally important to guard against complacency and routine. Any traffic stop can turn out badly if an officer misses a warning sign of possible danger.

Here are some safety tips recommended by experienced officers:

  1. Be professional.

A traffic stop can be frightening for a citizen who’s not used to dealing with police. Nervous drivers sometimes stop right in the middle of the street, fearing that they’ll be cited for trying to avoid an encounter with the police.

If you use your public address system to show the driver where to stop, speak calmly. When you walk to the vehicle, avoid showing haste or aggression. Introduce yourself courteously and explain the reason for the stop.

There are several reasons for going slowly. You’ll have a chance to assess the situation, and the citizens in the car will know that you’re a professional who can be trusted. More important, you won’t be raising an alarm if one of the car’s occupants has an active warrant or has just committed a crime.

  1. Position yourself and your vehicle carefully.

Pulling up behind a citizen’s car gives you a visual advantage: You can see what the driver is doing, but he or she has only a partial view of your vehicle.

Approach the citizen’s vehicle from the right so that you’re not in danger from passing cars. Because the driver probably expects to see you on the left, you’ll have a few extra moments to assess the situation.

  1. Encourage cooperation.

Some experienced officers recommend making polite requests that elicit cooperation: “Please show me your hands,” “Could you turn off your engine, please?” or “Could you turn on your dome light?” (Another advantage is that a stopped and illuminated car is safer than a darkened car with the engine running.)

  1. Promptly indicate why you initiated the stop.

Drivers who know what’s going on are likely to feel less anxious and more willing to listen to what you are telling them.

  1. Set realistic goals for the traffic stop.

Don’t set up a potential conflict that you might lose, such as teaching a citizen a lesson or winning an argument. Your goal is to follow the procedures established by your agency. It takes two people to have an argument: If you refuse to be baited, you’re more likely to maintain control of the situation. Remember: You can write a citation even if the driver disagrees with you.

  1. Avoid inflammatory language.

Drivers are less likely to try to argue if you stick to neutral statements that don’t sound like accusations or attacks. Avoid “you,” and talk about the car rather than the driver. It’s better to say “The car was going 60 mph” than “You were going 60 mph” or “You were driving recklessly.”

  1. Keep your guard up.

Be observant, and use all your senses. Sometimes a scent or a sound can be the first sign that something is amiss. Stay alert even when you’re in your vehicle writing a citation or talking on the radio.

  1. Respect the power of a motor vehicle.

Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security while you’re standing next to the open window of a citizen’s car or truck. That vehicle can quickly become dangerous if the driver decides to start moving.

For example, don’t be tempted to try to turn off the ignition. Many cars have electronic ignition switches that are difficult for anyone but a seated driver to operate. And if the driver starts the car while you’re reaching for the key, you might be dragged down the road.

These guidelines can go a long way toward protecting your safety—and the safety of others—. You should apply them automatically when you’re dealing with traffic offenses. But your observation and thinking processes should never be automatic: Always be on the alert, looking for what’s unexpected and unpredictable.