By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Not many of us know someone who’s been in the clink for a serious crime — but almost everyone knows someone who’s been on the receiving end of a traffic ticket, or received one themselves.
This fact tells us that good, honest conduct is no sure guarantee of avoiding interaction with the police — at least when it comes to traffic violations.
But you can improve your odds; here’s how:
1) Try not to drive faster than 9 mph over the posted limit on the highway and about 5-6 mph above the posted limit on secondary roads.
In most places, most cops will not ticket you if you’re within this range. Part of the reason is simply that most car speedometers are not perfectly calibrated and so it’s easier to challenge such a trivial ticket in court. The other is the unwritten rule most cops follow that “spots” traffic a few mph over the posted limit — because the cops know (even if they won’t say so publicly) that the speed limits are generally under-posted, too — and for the most part don’t like to harass people for exceeding them by just a little bit. Exceptions to this include 25 mph/school zones — where you should never drive even a single mph faster than the posted limit.
2) Don’t drive significantly faster (or slower) than the traffic around you.
If you do, you’ll stick out — and if there’s a cop around, he will notice and focus on you. Learn from the prey animals of the African savannah: There is safety in numbers. Even if you are driving faster than the speed limit, if you’re one of a dozen cars in a pack, there’s only a one in twelve chance the cop will target you.
3) Never speed at night, especially after midnight.
There are more cops on the road during these hours — and fewer cars. You will stand out. And the cops are looking for any excuse to pull you over, because night-time is DWI time and every car a cop comes across will be closely scrutinized. Give him a reason — any reason — to pull you over and he will pull you over.
4) Make sure your car’s registration, license plates and state inspection are always up to date.
Cops are trained to look for passed-due inspection stickers (and also things like cracked windshields and dead headlights/brake lights, etc.) and if you’re speeding, even a little bit, your car will be the one that gets pulled over. And once pulled over, odds are you will end up with a ticket. The number one goal is to avoid getting pulled over in the first place.
5) Pay close attention to the behavior of other drivers, especially if you’re driving in an unfamiliar area.
If you see cars ahead suddenly slowing down for no apparent reason (or oncoming cars are flashing their lights at you) it’s likely there’s a radar trap up ahead. Slow down now.
6) Be on your guard driving through small towns you don’t know, especially small towns just off an Interstate or when a major road goes directly through a small town.
Speed traps are a reality of life and you’re most likely to encounter one when driving through a small town in the middle of nowhere. Some towns get a large percentage of their budget from traffic tickets and the local yokel cops are on the lookout for cars with out of state plates because they know the driver is not likely to come all the way back there to try to fight the ticket in court — no matter how trumped-up the ticket might be. It’s unfair, but it’s the reality on the ground.
7) Be on the alert for sudden (and often poorly indicated) reductions in the posted speed limit.
On many roads, the maximum will drop from say 55 to 45 for no obvious reason — and sometimes, there’ll be a cop just after the sign change, waiting for you with his radar gun. Watch for work zones — where the limit may drop by half (and the fines double).
8) Educate yourself about photo radar, or automated tickets.
If you’re traveling to say Phoenix, AZ or Washington, DC — be forewarned that these areas use automated cameras to ticket people for both red light running and speeding. You may get no warning — and have no idea you just got a ticket — until it arrives in the mail a few weeks later.
9) Familiarize yourself with the makes/models of cars that cops tend to drive.
The most commonly used cop cars (marked and unmarked) are the Ford Crown Victoria, the Chevy Impala and the Dodge Charger. The nice thing about the Vic is that it’s very easy to pick out because it’s very large and pretty much only cops and older people drive them. The Impala’s harder to sniff out because they are anonymous-looking and really blend into the crowd. The Charger’s even worse because it’s a popular car and also a car that younger, sporty drivers favor. But in general, be on the alert whenever one of these cars is around; be extra wary if you see telltale signs such as multiple low-profile antennas, large tires with inexpensive-looking trim rims/hub caps and a spotlight on the driver’s side door.
10) Don’t exceed the posted in adverse weather such as heavy rain or when it’s snowy.
Not only is it unsafe, it may also be a moving violation even though you may not have been driving faster than the posted maximum. Keep in mind that the speed limit is just that — the lawful maximum — under ideal conditions. If a cop sees you driving faster than he deems safe for conditions, he can still pull you over and give you a ticket. And besides, this is a case where slower really is safer. Even if you have a 4WD vehicle, it takes longer to stop (and the vehicle is more prone to skidding out) if the roads are wet or slicked from snow/ice.
Finally, be courteous and calm if you do get pulled over. You’ve still got a 50-50 chance of not being ticketed. Sometimes, a cop will let you off with a verbal warning — but your odds of getting one plummet to Absolute Zero if you’re confrontational, uncooperative or disrespectful.
Even if you believe the cop is being unfair, it does you no good to argue with him. He has all the power; you’ve got none — and any belligerence on your part will only make things worse. You don’t have to bow and scrape — or incriminate yourself. Just answer his questions politely and provide your ID/insurance/registration paperwork. A friendly attitude can go a long way.