Who taught YOU to drive?

Cop's-eye view of traffic stops

Keep your hands in plain sight and stay in the car if stopped by a State Police trooper or local officer, who are alert for threats. Keep your hands in plain sight and stay in the car if stopped by a State Police trooper or local officer, who are alert for threats. (TOM HERDE/Globe staff/file)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter DeMarco
December 13, 2007

I remember my first time like it was yesterday. And geez, was I nervous.

I must have been 18. Naturally, I was in my car. The flashing lights, as they always do, seemingly came from nowhere. I prayed they were for someone else, but as the cruiser pulled up tightly behind my Ford Bronco, there could be no doubt. I was getting pulled over - for the first time in my life - on my way to a Halloween party, wearing a giant sombrero, some Hawaiian leis, and pants rolled up past my kneecaps.

Nobody wants to get pulled over by the police for a moving violation. But if you drive long enough, or often enough, it's bound to happen. (That day, I'd unknowingly run a red light.)

Since most of us don't get pulled over very often, however, it's a little hard to know how you're supposed to behave during a traffic stop. Should you have your license and registration ready for the officer or wait until he or she asks for them? Can the officer search your car without your consent? Faced with the prospect of a stiff fine, should you argue your case or act as sweet as can be?

And does it help to, um, take off your sombrero?

The law says

I sought out three authorities on the subject: Lieutenant Joe O'Leary, veteran spokesman for the Lexington Police Department; Charles McGowan, a longtime traffic attorney; and Captain Daniel Wicks, the State Police's newly appointed traffic programs section commander.

All three of them agreed on the basics: You must pull over for the police, you must present your license and registration, and you must properly identify yourself. If you don't, the officer can arrest you and fine you.

Beyond that, it's a crapshoot what will happen, depending on everything from the law you allegedly broke, to how egregiously you broke it, to whatever mood the officer happens to be in.

Almost all officers are wary of the drivers they pull over - with so many officers killed or injured during traffic stops nationwide, they have to be. (State Police have dumped the term "routine traffic stop" in favor of "unknown risk stop.") But drivers can do a lot, with minimal effort, to ease some of that tension, O'Leary and Wicks said.

The "Do" list: Shut off your engine (unless it's really cold outside); turn on the interior light if you're stopped at night; roll down your window if it's tinted; keep your hands in plain sight, preferably on the wheel in the noon position; stay in the car.

The "Don't" list: Drive for a lengthy amount of time before pulling over; pull over on a curve, in the middle of an intersection or in an otherwise dangerous spot; reach anywhere near your waist (an easy place to hide a gun).

I asked whether police like it when you have your license and registration ready for them before they reach your window, some advice I picked up long ago.

Turns out, police don't ever want you to do that.

"I've been here 37 years as an officer, so I'm a little cynical. If someone's that prepared, I'm wondering why," said O'Leary. "I'd rather see someone appear a little more innocent. 'What's wrong, officer?' That seems to me more natural than them holding their license and registration out the 2 1/2 inches their window is rolled down. Then I'm thinking, 'What are they trying to hide in the car?' "

Wicks said he is also suspicious of any hurried movements inside a vehicle he has pulled over, even if it's just the driver hunting around for the car's registration.

"Don't have your hand in your suit jacket when I arrive," O'Leary added. "And I like to see people explain what they're going to do. 'I'm just going to get my wallet and grab my license.' Or 'I'm just going to reach into my glove compartment.' "

Wicks said that when he first started driving, it was considered a sign of respect to get out of your car and walk up to the officer who pulled you over. "When I was in college, I actually did that once. He had me sit in his front seat," he said.

Needless to say, that thinking has vastly changed: Today, an officer is likely to feel threatened if you leave your vehicle and possibly arrest you.

My dad has always preached to keep a neat car in case I got ever got stopped, so I asked O'Leary whether appearances mattered.

"Subconsciously, if there's stuff strewn all over the car, I can see where it may make an imprint on the officer. 'He's got a sloppy car, so he's a sloppy driver,' " he said. Technically, though, it shouldn't matter. (Nor should a sombrero, but I remember tossing mine aside to be safe.)

O'Leary said he has encountered drivers who remain on their cellphones after getting pulled over, a dubious decision at best.

Wicks recommends losing the Bluetooth device when a state trooper pulls you over, as having it on could block other sounds and put you at greater risk of violating Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, Section 25, which says you must answer a police officer when he or she asks you to identify yourself.

What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you've always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it at We'll check it out.

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