[Ed. note: This is part two of a four part series on traffic stop safety. Please read the articles on calling out the stop, exiting the patrol car and the use of light and movement for a complete look at safe traffic stops.]
In my first article on traffic stop safety, I talked about the importance of clear and concise radio traffic on car stops or other enforcement actions before actually engaging in those actions.
Another important consideration for officers conducting traffic related activities is how we position our patrol cars at scenes and car stops, and what we do with ourselves when doing so. These little details could very well make the difference between life and death, and are often overlooked.
Three Basic Traffic Stop Positions
There are three basic methods of positioning our police cars during a vehicle stop, and in talking with officers from several different states it seems that these are fairly universally taught.
1) DIRECTLY IN-LINE – In this method the officer pulls the patrol car behind the offender’s vehicle in a manner that causes the vehicles to be directly in-line of each other as they would be if they were stopped in traffic. This method allows for the least amount of intrusion into vehicular traffic, but also provides the least or no amount of protection to an officer who approaches the offending driver’s door.
This is often the preferred method on rural or curved roads that do not have adequate shoulders to allow traffic to pass by unobstructed. In this method, however, officers are immediately exposed to threats from the violator upon exiting the patrol car, in addition to the traffic hazards.
Should an approaching car get too close the officer is very exposed to impact. Rear-approaching vehicles that impact the patrol car may or may not continue into the officer’s path, but who wants to be standing around during that collision? Spacing of the patrol car from the violator car becomes it’s own consideration, and I’ll touch on that at the end of this article.
One benefit from this position is that the patrol car’s emergency lights, and take-down lights are directly on the suspect vehicle, and it could be an option for 2-man units. However, in my opinion, the Direct In-line method should be used very sparingly.
2) OFF SET – This method has the officer positioning the police vehicle straight on behind the offender’s vehicle, but the patrol car is about a half car width into the lane of travel. In this method the police vehicle provides a “safe” lane of approach to the offender’s driver’s door, as the police vehicle is blocking rear approaching traffic from driving directly into the officer’s foot path.
I say “safe” because, as Richard has mentioned in an article about the passenger side approach, the officer is still somewhat exposed to the idiots that can’t avoid a marked patrol car with emergency lights on.
Roads with larger shoulders could allow for traffic to pass unobstructed if the offender pulls far enough off onto the shoulder, but we know that rarely happens. This method provides some traffic obstruction (if the officer’s car is on the roadway), but provides some officer protection as well.
In this method officer’s have momentary protection from the violator upon exiting the patrol car, as the engine block of the patrol car provides partial cover. During rear-end collisions with the patrol car the officer has some protection from impact as the patrol car and the offender’s vehicle will absorb a lot of energy, but again, who wants to be standing out exposed during that crash? The spacing of the patrol car becomes very important here, as well.
Off-set is also an option for 2-man units.
3) ANGLED – When performing the angled car stop position an officer pulls directly in behind the offender’s vehicle and then angles the patrol car approximately 30 degrees into the lane of travel. I’ve seen some officers cant their vehicles as much as 45 degrees. Although this provides a great deal of protection from the violator, it really starts to make emergency lights limited in their use because of the angle of the light bar facing approaching traffic. With the 30 degree angle this method provides some traffic obstruction, but still gives a good visual of the police car to approaching motorists without losing the effectiveness of the overhead lights.
This method also provides the best cover and protection to the officer upon exit, because the entire engine block, windshield and other parts of the patrol car are between the officer and the violator’s car. If the officer does a driver’s side approach there is a brief time the officer will be exposed to traffic when he/she walks around the front of their patrol car, but then they have a “protected” approach lane the rest of the way.
Remember, officers are always exposed to traffic on the driver’s side.
Some have said that the angled method can also protect officers from rear-end collisions with their patrol car, as the force of the impact, combined with the angled position of the car, will send the patrol car away from the officer. My crash investigation training and experience tells me that high speed collisions won’t have this desired effect immediately, but there may be some factual science in this belief for lower speed collisions.
This method also is the best for taking advantage of a passenger’s side approach that Richard and I are great believers in. Because of the angle of the patrol car, officers can easily slip around behind the patrol car and approach the violator’s vehicle often unseen.
One draw back to the Angled method is that the take-down lights lose some of their effect.
Commercial Vehicle Traffic Stop Alternative
I recognize that some officers, particularly those who do a lot of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, are taught to pull in front of the violator’s vehicle (usually a big 18- wheel tractor trailer rig) because it offers the greatest view of the driver upon approach, and puts the rig between the officer and approaching traffic. Since this method seems to be used mostly in CMV enforcement I will not touch on it further in this article.
Recently Richard published a video of a car stop turned gunfight. In that video officers stop a pick-up truck, and the driver immediately exits and begins firing on the officers with a handgun. This thug was motivated and had some skills, firing first on the passenger officer, then firing on the driver, and returning to the passenger officer before disengaging from the gunfight because his truck (cover) was moving away from him, and officers were returning fire.
Due to the officers being in a 2-man unit they opted for the Off-Set method when stopping, and that was probably the best position for their circumstances. It offered some protection and allowed both officers to get into the fight rather quickly.
During my career I have used the Angled method of car stop positioning more than any other method because I feel it provides me with the greatest protection, and more options for approach when I exit the patrol car. However, I have used all the methods of stopping vehicles I’ve mentioned, including in front of the violator.
No matter what method you choose, an officer should try to take advantage of the safest method available to them at the time and location of the stop, and make that decision before the lights and sirens are ever turned on.
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.