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Stopping Big Rigs

You won't be intimidated by their size or the complexity of dealing with commercial drivers if you think of tractor-trailer trucks as "big cars."

March 10, 2014  |  by Michael T. Rayburn - Also by this author

Photo: istock
Photo: istock

For whatever reason some officers are intimidated when it comes to stopping big rigs. Whether it's because of a lack of knowledge of the rules and regulations involving tractor-trailers, the mountain of paperwork truckers carry with them, or the officers' own lack of skill or comfort in stopping such large vehicles on the highway, some officers are just reluctant to stop these large vehicles.

That's unacceptable because it's a part of an officer's job to enforce the rules and regulations of the road, and that applies to all. Not only that, but crimes are being committed by some operators of these big rigs. Some are involved in narcotics, contraband smuggling, prostitution, human trafficking, kidnapping, and a number of other crimes that require law enforcement action.

License and Registration

In order to overcome your reluctance to stopping these large vehicles, you need to change your mindset. Don't think of that rig as some large, foreign beast that nobody wants to deal with. Instead, think of it as a "big car."

I know you've heard this one before, but size doesn't matter. Whether it's a compact car on the road, or a semi-tractor trailer, they all need the same basic paperwork: license, registration, and proof of insurance. Of course the operators of these big rigs are required by law to carry additional paperwork with them, but start off with the basics: license, registration, and proof of insurance.

Now, when you ask for these three items the trucker is likely to hand you a big three-ring binder with a whole bunch of paperwork stuffed into it. They do this to confuse and intimidate you, or to see how much you really know. Why? Because they know most officers have no idea what they're looking at, or looking for, so they hope to either get out of a possible citation, or to intimidate you into not looking any deeper into what they may be doing or carrying.

If a trucker does this to you, politely, and with a big smile on your face, hand the binder back to him and tell him that you don't have time to sort through all of his paperwork. Advise him that it is his responsibility under the law to produce his driver license, the registrations for both the tractor and the trailer, and proof of insurance. Advise him that if he fails to produce the proper paperwork to you, that he will be issued the proper citations and his vehicle could be towed. You'll be surprised by how quickly the requested paperwork appears in your hand.

100 Air Miles

Once you have the proper paperwork in hand you can issue a citation for any violations or you can delve a little deeper if you want to. If the rig is being operated more than 100 air miles from its home base, the trucker is required to carry a logbook. There are all kinds of rules and regulations on how many hours the trucker can drive, when he is supposed to rest and for how long, but don't get overly concerned with trying to remember all of that. Just be aware that if he's traveling more than 100 air miles from his home base, he is required to carry a logbook, and the logbook is required to be up to date.

Look for missing hours at a time and unusual layovers in source cities for narcotics like Los Angeles, New York City, or Phoenix. See if his fuel receipts (that are kept for tax purposes) match the locations in his logbook. Is his logbook saying he was in one location, but his receipts are saying he fueled in a totally different location? Could he be hiding the fact that he had an unusually long layover in a large metropolitan "source city" while the truck was loaded with contraband? Look for dual logbooks; one for the cops and the other "real one."

Bills of Lading

If he's operating a big rig he's required to carry his medical card with him at all times that basically says he's fit to drive. If he's hauling fuel, chemicals, or some other type of hazardous material, he is required to have MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) with him, and shipping papers or a bill of lading for what he's hauling.

All big rigs, and most of the smaller box trucks, carry shipping papers or what's called a bill of lading with them. Do the shipping papers match what's inside the truck? Does what he says he's carrying match what's in the truck or what's on the bill of lading/shipping papers? The shipping papers should have the location of where the load was picked up, where it is being dropped off, and what the shipment contains. If not, these are indicators that there is possible criminal activity afoot. Look for handwritten bills of lading or handwritten corrections. Because everything is computerized these days this could be a sign of something suspicious.

As far as personal criminal indicators are concerned, they are the same for an automobile as they are for a tractor-trailer. Is the driver nervous? Is he sweating? Is he rubbing the back of his neck? Did he just urinate on himself when asked what his shipment was? (It happens.) The criminal indicators for someone hauling a carload of drugs are the same for someone hauling a tractor-trailer load of drugs; you just have to be able to spot them and recognize them for what they are.

Several years ago a large cash seizure was made from a tractor-trailer on Thanksgiving Day. The big rig was being operated by someone who didn't have a commercial driver license (CDL), and was wearing Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, flip flops, and multiple gold chains. Other than the big indicator of not having a CDL, the huge indicator was the fact that the driver did not look, dress, or act like a trucker. Just as you do when you're out stopping cars for drug interdiction, ask yourself, does the story match the person?

With cars we sometimes have a passenger present and we can compare the driver's story against that of the passenger's. However, when dealing with these large vehicles, there should be no unauthorized passengers in the rig. When a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) gets over a certain weight, any passengers in the vehicle are required to have a written letter of permission from the company to be in that vehicle. If there is no permission letter the second person may be there for other reasons, like to protect the shipment of drugs or cash that's being hauled. Or that second person could be involved in prostitution or maybe even the victim of a kidnapping.

Making the Stop

Now that you know the paperwork is not that bad, and that the criminal indicators are pretty much the same as dealing with someone operating a car, let's talk about stopping these "big cars" on the highway. Don't be intimidated by the size or shape of the vehicle. For the most part, the pull-over procedures are the same as those for a car, with just a few more considerations.

As with any vehicle, try to preplan the stop location as much as possible. Obviously with a big rig you're going to need more room than you would for a car, so look for a paved, flat location to pull the rig over onto. Avoid pulling the rig over onto a soft shoulder where it might sink in and get stuck. If you're on a busy highway, consider escorting the rig to a different location. The vehicle can always be moved after the initial stop. Some officers wait until they are near an off-ramp to initiate the stop or they have the rig move onto the ramp itself to get it out of the flow of traffic.

Because of the size of the rig, the driver may not see you immediately. You may have to pull a little further out into the left lane to make your presence known to the driver via his side view mirrors. Even though it may be difficult for you to see around the rig, avoid pulling alongside the vehicle. You don't want to get into one of the rig's blind spots.

Don't be alarmed if the driver doesn't immediately pull over. He may be looking for a safe place for his vehicle and for you. The driver is more aware of his vehicle's peculiarities than you are. If you're not satisfied with the location of the stop, you can always move the vehicle.

Once you have the big rig stopped, you can decide which approach to take. You can do a left-side approach, a right-side approach, or you can call the driver out to you. You can even elect to perform the Pull Around technique. The Pull Around technique is used by a number of agencies for busy highway stops.

After the big rig has come to a stop, check and make sure it's safe to do so, and pull around to the front of the tractor. Park your cruiser at a 45-degree angle to the curb, about 45 to 50 feet or three car lengths in front of the tractor. Bear in mind that vehicles approaching from the rear will not be able to see your emergency lighting until they are abreast of the tractor trailer, so be sure you are out of the flow of traffic. From here you can approach the tractor from the driver's side, passenger's side, or call the operator out to you. Don't worry about the tractor trailer ramming you, as by the time he's able to take the brake off and get the heavy rig into motion, you'll be in your vehicle and out of the way.

Understand that most truckers are hardworking souls just trying to make a living, but they do commit traffic infractions, and some are involved in criminal activity. And just because they're driving a big rig doesn't mean they get a free pass just because you feel intimidated or uncomfortable about stopping them. Your job is to enforce the rules and regulations of the road, and to stop criminal activity, and that applies to commercial motor vehicles as well. Step out of your comfort zone and stop these big rigs; you may be surprised by what you find.

Michael T. Rayburn is the author of "Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics" and four other books. He is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, a former adjunct instructor at the Smith & Wesson Academy, and the lead instructor for Rayburn Law Enforcement Training. He can be reached at

Tags: Traffic Enforcement, Truck Stops, Traffic Stops

Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

Joel McSwain @ 3/17/2014 5:18 AM

From experience with dealing with truckers, they will test you to see if you know what you are doing. These truckers, by testing you will know if you are federally certified in inspecting CMVs. If you are not, the best question that I have learned to throw the driver off is to first ask the driver if he/ she has ever been through an Inspection before? 99% of the time they will reply "yes", then ask for their medical card, which they are required to have if they are driving a tractor trailer. Whether you know what you are looking at does not matter. The driver will think you know what you are doing. After issuing a citation or whatever you do, when giving the paperwork back to the driver just tell them you decided not to do an inspection, but you are issuing a citation. You will be surprised how relieved they will be.

Bryce Baker @ 3/26/2014 1:28 PM

The Illinois Truck Enforcement Association will be posting a commentary on this article on their blog April 6th. Check then to read it.

Bryce Baker @ 4/5/2014 4:54 AM

Here is the link to our commentary on this article:

Steve Jones @ 4/5/2014 6:01 AM

Treat the driver with the respect he/she is due and you will be surprised how far you get if you don't have the proper training. As a truck enforcement officer I deal with these situations daily and I found this article offensive...this is why the driver's give officer's grief! I recently had a driver dead to rights on two red light violations. One on camera & one witnessed by a citizen who came forward during the stop to be a witness. The driver tried to give me bogus excuses but I politely pointed out his lies. He ended up being under legal weight (despite his claims of being too heavy to stop...??) and flat out was just in a hurry & got caught. He thanked me, after his two tickets, at the end & told me it was the first time he had dealt with a LEO without the LEO being a "jerk". I also find the "stop procedure" to be a bit questionable & a disadvantage for LEO's. Bottom line is find a truck officer & get some pointer's and above all be respectful/fair & no power trips!

chris hill @ 4/9/2014 6:39 AM

As a 19 year veteran trucker this article contains some things that I'm glad to see and a few that are just flat out wrong first i don't hand you a 3 ring binder to confuse you i do it cause it contains all the paperwork you would ever need for my truck and trailer
second I'm required to take a 34 hour reset that you made no mention of that might explain why i was in Los Angels for the extended time
third is the fuel receipts you are correct i do need them for fuel taxes but i get a printout from Comdata for that so i carry no receipts with me
fourth the passenger i not required to carry passenger auth in the truck it is to be kept at the company at times i carry one of my 2 girls with me are you gonna use them to find something wrong ?? now with that said i certainly want you to make sure they haven't been kidnapped
i was glad to see you say preplan your stop for a safe location but the pull around i don't like it does put an almost immoveable truck between you and traffic

Rayburn @ 4/18/2014 3:29 AM

This stuff is out there.

Scottie Arnett @ 11/1/2014 2:40 AM

I am LE here in Houston Texas. I run traffic on the East and Northeast Tollroad..This article is great is I find to be very helpful. Stopping CMV's are or can be intimidating to a lot of us. I find a lot of this article's content to be useful when running drugs, cash, human smuggling/trafficking. Thank you M. Rayburn for the article and tips...I intend to follow up on your website...Stay Safe

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