You get pulled over by a CHP officer. Now what? Here are tips for a better experience

In a file photo, a California Highway Patrol officer makes a traffic stop on Highway 85 in Cupertino
In a file photo, a California Highway Patrol officer makes a traffic stop on Highway 85 in Cupertino Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Even though I am a uniform-wearing, sworn officer of the California Highway Patrol, believe it or not, I know exactly what it feels like to be pulled over by the police.

I have been pulled over a few different times and I have even received a citation from the CHP. Just like anyone else, as soon as I see the red light in my rear-view mirror, my heart rate increases and my palms begin to sweat. I get nervous and all I can think of is, why me? I think about where to stop and how to act when the officer approaches my car.

So, I am going to give you some advice about what to do when you see the red light behind you.

First off, take a deep breath! Once you determine what is behind you is a clearly marked police vehicle displaying a red light and/or sounding a siren, pull to the right as soon as possible and stop in a safe location. The safe location can be the right shoulder of the freeway.

Here is something very important to note: The law states you shall yield to the “right” for an emergency vehicle. If you are traveling in the No. 1 lane (fast lane) on the freeway DO NOT pull into the center median!

Even though the center median is close, it is a dangerous place to pull over and illegal. If you are in the fast lane, simply put on your right turn signal and the officer will assist you by clearing the lanes of traffic to allow you to pull to the right shoulder. CHP officers do this for their safety and the safety of the public.

After you are stopped, stay in your vehicle and wait for the officer to approach. Roll down your windows. The officer may approach on the driver side of your car or the passenger’s side, so roll both windows down.

If it is night, turn on the interior light. Please turn the vehicle’s engine off. It is smart to place your hands on the steering wheel as the officer approaches so he or she can see your hands. Never exit your vehicle and approach the officer unless instructed to do so. When the officer arrives at your vehicle, he or she will tell you the reason for the stop and ask you for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.

Please do not start rummaging through your back pocket, purse, or back seat of your vehicle until the officer instructs you to retrieve the required items. The officer does not know what you are reaching for, and is cautious to ensure nobody is reaching for a weapon.

To keep things relaxed, tell the officer, “My license is in my purse in the back seat, I’m going to reach back there to retrieve it, if that’s OK.” Understand that one of the most dangerous parts of a CHP officer’s job is conducting traffic stops. Anything you can do to make the stop go more smoothly is much appreciated. If you remain calm, the officer will stay calm, as well.

CHP officers will be polite and respectful to you. Please be polite and respectful to the officer, too. Stay calm and feel free to ask the officer anything about the stop or the citation that is relevant.

As a CHP officer, I know nobody wants to receive a ticket. However, not all traffic stops result in the issuance of a citation. You may drive away with a verbal warning or just a written warning. Ultimately the goal of the CHP is traffic safety.

Officers are looking for compliance of the law to ensure you and your family can safely travel to your destination. Issuing citations is not the only way to gain compliance. If during a traffic stop the violator understands the reason for the stop and appears to be educated regarding their errant driving behavior, a warning may be all that is necessary.

Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.

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Remember to always pull to the right. Red lights and a siren do not always mean you are being pulled over – fire trucks and ambulances may be trying to quickly get to their location and their expectation is that you will pull to the right. If you pull to the left or into a center divider, that completely throws them off and they will have to slow down, taking longer to get to someone who really needs their assistance.

Additionally, when you see a red light and you are trying to confirm it is a is marked police vehicle, while infrequent, there are legitimate traffic stops conducted by unmarked local, state, and/or federal agencies. While types of vehicles can vary, in these cases you would still see at least one solid red light and a siren as necessary, in addition to the law enforcement officer displaying distinctively marked clothing, a badge, or other credentials. Once the officer positively identifies him/herself, comply with their requests.

If visibility is limited due to darkness or weather conditions and you are unable to clearly determine the vehicle behind you is a legitimate police vehicle, do the following: Turn on your emergency flashers and acknowledge you see the vehicle behind you and that you will yield to the red light. Continue driving at a reduced rate of speed until you can safely stop in a well-lighted, public location, preferably where other people are present.

Thank you for taking the time to read these tips regarding what to do when you see the red light behind you.

The CHP is here to serve you, the people. Please contact me if you would like an officer to come out to your place of business or school to speak about traffic safety. It is a free service and we enjoy providing this invaluable information.

Officer Traci Gallian can be reached at tgallian@chp.ca.gov. For more from the CHP Central Division, go to the division’s Facebook page.