Most common traffic stops and how to talk to a police officer

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A traffic stop in a residential neighborhood.

Be courteous, cooperative and respectful during a traffic stop. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Ildar Sagdejev/Wikipedia)

Even the most cautious drivers are likely to be involved in a police traffic stop at some point. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the odds of this happening to a driver during the course of a year are 1 in 11.48. Here are the top five most common traffic stops, plus how to talk to a police officer in order to decrease your odds of receiving a traffic ticket.

No. 1 – Speeding

According to Los Angeles Police Department Detective William Bustos, the faster a car travels, the longer it takes to react to unexpected traffic situations, including the presence of pedestrians. That’s why speeding is considered such a serious offense. Braking distances increase as speed builds; at 60 mph, it takes approximately 120 feet for a vehicle to stop once standard brakes are applied.

California Highway Patrol officer Edward McElroy told Edmunds that on average, drivers are putting the pedal to the metal more than ever.

“People seem impatient; their commutes are longer than ever before,” he said.

The decision to write a traffic ticket for speeding is left to both the law and the officer’s discretion. While a five- to seven-mph buffer over the speed limit may exist in practice, drivers should not assume they’ll be given the benefit of the doubt.

No. 2 – Cell phone usage

Distracted driving for any reason is dangerous, and illegal cell phone use while driving remains disturbingly common. Calling, texting or browsing the Web for directions while the vehicle is on the road and in motion are invitations to a traffic stop.

“People think, ‘I’ll just make a quick call,’ or ‘This text will only take a second,'” Bustos said. “But you have to drive as if your life depended on it — because it does.”

No. 3 – Hazardous driving

Even when a driver’s undivided attention is given to the road, aggressive driving behavior makes that driver a danger to themselves and everyone else on the road. Running through stop signs and red lights, making illegal U-turns and failing to yield are unsafe at any speed. At higher speeds, the danger typically increases exponentially.

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No. 4 – Equipment malfunction or violation

If your taillight is out, your headlights aren’t working properly or your windshield is broken, law enforcement will notice. Overly tinted windows, expired license tags and illegal modifications such as exhaust pipe whistle tips will also attract the wrong kind of notice. If a car is in shape and in observance of the law, the chances of this type of traffic stop occurring decrease dramatically.

No. 5 – Following too closely/improper lane changes

These types of driving behavior are both common and dangerous enough to merit their own category, noted McElroy. Following too closely decreases reaction time and can cause accidents. Changing lanes without observing “S.M.O.G. Off” (signal, mirror, look over shoulder, go, turn off signal) can also lead to accidents and/or a traffic ticket.

Keep your mouth in check

With many traffic infractions, officers have some leeway to call things as they see them. If the motorist is polite, courteous and cooperative when approached by law enforcement, the traffic ticket process is more likely to go smoothly. However, if the driver is belligerent, there’s always a chance that the human factor will come into play and the officer will ticket you for something he would have let slide.

Santa Monica, Calif., police officer Jeff Wiles told Edmunds that drivers should play it cool when they take to the nation’s highways.

“If you really don’t want a ticket, try chilling out,” Wiles said. “Put on a relaxing radio station or CD and be patient because traffic is bad and there will be delays.”

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