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Fatal Errors: Surviving Traffic Duty

Any vehicle stop requires your full attention for the entire encounter if you want to stay safe.

January 01, 2005  |  by Gerald W. Garner

In the Southeastern U.S., a 10:40 p.m. traffic stop for driving without headlights led to the death of a 23-year-old sheriff’s deputy. Unknown to the officer, the car had been taken in an armed robbery earlier that day. The deputy asked the male driver to get out of the vehicle. While the officer was focused on the passenger who was searching for registration papers, the driver approached the deputy from behind and shot him eight times with a 9mm pistol. The last shot struck the deputy in the head after he had fallen to the ground.

It is easy to get careless while engaged in something you do a great deal. If you are a uniformed police officer and don’t work in a jail, chances are that traffic and vehicles are the bread and butter of your existence.

Because you do so much of it, it is perhaps understandable (although not acceptable) that sometimes you don’t pay as much attention to your safety during traffic enforcement as you should. You already know that someone at your next traffic stop may be the one waiting for the opportunity to kill you. The important thing is that you keep that reality in mind every time you walk up to a vehicle.

What are some of the worst mistakes you can make on a traffic stop? Even more important, how can you avoid committing these potentially deadly errors? Read on.

Complacency Kills

Because they do it so much, if traffic cops aren’t careful they begin to crank out tickets in assembly-line fashion. There is nothing wrong with being efficient. The key is to not let yourself go on auto pilot. Keep looking out for problems even while filling out an invitation to court.

It is important that you remain mindful of everything going on around you for the duration of a traffic contact. That means carefully tracking everyone present until you are completely out of their presence.

One way to do this is to have everyone remain in their vehicle for the duration of the contact. If things start to get more complicated—such as learning the driver is intoxicated or has an outstanding warrant—it’s time to have a cover officer on scene to watch out for your safety as you conduct the primary business of the contact.

It is only human to not be 100-percent aware at all times. However, good officer survival skills require that you keep all of your mind on your business for the duration of a vehicle contact.

Bad Habits

By now you know how to follow excellent officer safety practices. You have trained that way since your academy days. The reality is, however, that when it’s really hot, really cold, snowing, raining, near end of shift, or whatever, it’s just too easy to cheat a little, to cut a few corners on your safety checklist. It saves a little time and effort. It’s not as if you want something bad to happen. But something could if you allow safety lapses to become so ingrained in your daily traffic contact practices that they become a habit, and a very bad one at that.

One good way to avoid bad habits is to critique yourself from time to time. Step back and really look hard at how you do things, particularly in the realm of safety practices. Be honest with yourself. Are you starting to cheat a little, even though you know the right way to do it? If you decide that you are, in fact, falling into some bad habits, determine to address the problem right away. The only habit you can afford to get into is one that ensures you will do it the right way—the safe way—every time.

Dangerous Assumptions

The fact is, you probably don’t really know what else that red-light violator did in the minutes, hours, or days before you stopped him. The information advantage is all with him. If he has indeed raped, robbed, and pillaged his way across the landscape, he knows it. He assumes that you know it, too, or will as soon as you run him through the computer. He knows additionally that if he’s going to do something to avoid capture (like kill you, for instance), now is the last opportunity to do it.

You, on the other hand, know only that you’ve just stopped a traffic violator. The rest of that ugly picture is waiting to surprise you. Making a reckless assumption can kill you on a traffic contact. The only thing you can safely assume is that every contact you make brings with it the possibility of a deadly surprise. A veteran street cop summarized it nicely: “If he’s willing to rape, rob, and murder, what makes you think he isn’t going to run red lights, too?” It’s true enough. Avoiding dangerous assumptions on traffic contacts will help get you through to a healthy retirement.

Poor Street Position

Standing too far out in a traffic lane during a vehicle stop will do it. So will standing between the front bumper of the police car and the rear bumper of the violator’s vehicle. Ditto for approaching on the driver’s side of the car on a high-speed roadway when a passenger-side approach is an option. What any of these errors will do, or course, is get you killed or maimed. You cannot afford to do any of them.

Where and how you move in relation to your vehicle, the violator’s ride, and all of the rest of the vehicular traffic present will help determine whether your contact is completed in safety or not. Staying aware of all of your surroundings all of the time can help ensure your continued safety.

That means keeping that third eye focused on cars that are approaching from behind you as you approach the violator’s vehicle. It also means listening intently for anything and everything that might be coming your way. And it means remaining conscious all the while of where you can safely move, and which areas you must stay out of. In a sudden emergency, that awareness could keep you from propelling yourself into the path of danger.

Scene awareness also requires you to remain alert to the location of good cover at all times, just in case you need to get there in a hurry. Think of more cover options than your car. If a big, fat tree beside the road represents a better shield than the thin metal of your car’s door, that’s where you want to be if gunfire appears likely.

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