Avoiding Traffic Tickets

In an accompanying story, "Beat your Ticket", we give you some tips on beating your traffic ticket in court. We now have some overdue advice to offer: It's far easier to avoid getting tickets in the first place.

In this article, we'll tell you how to drive so the cops won't stop you. And we'll also tell you what to do and say if you are pulled over. Your behavior — and your attitude — could mean the difference between a ticket and a warning.

For answers to these questions, we talked to Walter Meyer, a teacher in a comedy traffic school and a freelance writer living in San Diego, Calif. He has collected a lot of information by studying the traffic laws and doing "ride-alongs" with traffic officers. But he has also gathered interesting anecdotal evidence from his students — harrowing accounts of traffic accidents, police stops and other driving mishaps.

Meyer's first suggestion was a guaranteed way to avoid getting a ticket: don't drive. He said he avoids getting behind the wheel as much as possible, partly because his traffic school students are always telling him horrifying stories of freeway carnage.

"I've had to limit my availability during breaks" in his traffic school classes, said Meyer. "My students keeping coming up and saying, 'Let me show you the scars from my accident,' or, 'I'll tell you how my mother was decapitated in an accident.'"

But obviously driving is a necessity for many people. So Meyer's first piece of real advice is to stay in the number two lane (on a four-lane freeway, this is the second lane from the left). According to studies, the number two lane has the fewest number of tickets and the fewest fatal accidents.

The rundown — so to speak — on the traffic lanes is as follows:

Number one lane (from the left): This lane, also known as the "passing lane," has the most tickets and the most fatal accidents.

Number two lane: Here, you'll find the fewest traffic tickets and fatal accidents.

Number three lane: This is where trucks travel most often. You don't want to be in this lane because, as Meyer puts it, "If you mess with a truck, you'll die."

Number four lane: This lane has the second-most tickets and fatalities, largely from "people getting on and off the freeway and doing stupid things," Meyer said.

Furthermore, he points out, it is a good idea to pick your lane and stay in it. "Study after study has shown that changing lanes doesn't mean diddly-squat in terms of getting there [as fast as possible]."

The best strategy to avoid the long arm of the law is not to catch the eye of a watchful patrol officer. This means becoming a member of what Meyer calls "the faceless, nameless many." In other words, "don't drive a red car; don't drive a flashy car; don't tailgate; don't do more than one illegal thing at a time."

Meyer says the traffic laws are analogous to the rules of football. "Do they call holding every time there's holding? Of course not. If they did, they would change the name of the game to 'picking up the hanky.' But if there is holding right in front of the ref, then of course they call it."

Furthermore, Meyer is quick to point out that many studies have shown that strict enforcement of the traffic laws has led to fewer accidents and greater safety. During his ride-alongs with the California Highway Patrol, Meyer heard the officers describe the behavior of certain drivers as "contempt of cop." The attitude of breaking laws and flaunting it in front of the police is sure to bring a ticket.

OK, so what do you do when you see the lights go on behind you? Meyer has the following advice:

  • Always pull your car over to the right side of the road.
  • Signal as you pull over, so you don't break more traffic laws.
  • Keep driving until you find a safe place to stop.
  • Leave your seatbelt on so the officer doesn't think you're reaching under the seat for your Uzi.
  • Keep your hands at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock on the wheel.
  • Don't try any jokes.
  • Tell your passengers to keep their hands in plain sight.
  • At night, turn on the dome light.
  • When the cop says, "Can I see your license and registration?" don't suddenly reach for your glovebox. Instead, say, "My license and registration are in the glovebox. Can I get them?"
  • If your license or registration is in a purse, open it wide and let them see inside and take it out slowly.

Meyer has strong opinions about how to interact with a police officer who has stopped you: "You might want to start sucking up to the officer immediately." The alternative is debating your offense. "If you say, 'I wasn't speeding!' you've just called the cop a liar. And arguing with someone who has a gun and a nightstick isn't real bright."

Actually, if you feel the ticket is unjustified, and you plan to fight it in court, the worst thing you can do is argue with the officer. The reverse is the recommended route. Don't make eye contact with the officer; don't say anything antagonistic or memorable. Then, when the case goes to court, the officer won't have a specific, unaided memory of the traffic stop (as required by law), and your case could be dismissed.

Is apologizing to the police officer a good tactic for getting out of a ticket? This question was put to the test in an informal survey among Edmunds.com editors (who seem to get pulled over more than the national average). One editor reported that he was stopped four times last year. In two cases, he admitted he was speeding and explained that he was either unfamiliar with the area or distracted while driving. He was let off with warnings. In the other two cases, he copped an attitude and the cops gave him a ticket.

"People forget that cops tend to be human beings," Meyer said. Furthermore, "Cops have a pretty good B.S. meter," and they know when you are lying. And, chances are, you were breaking the law.

Meyer said he likes to leave his students in traffic school with a feeling of hope. "I empower my classes by telling them, 'Take responsibility — there is a way of driving that will keep you from getting a ticket. It is possible to drive in such a way that you won't get stopped.'"