Traffic stops are both one of the most common things a police officer does each shift, while also being one of the most dangerous. You pull over a vehicle for a wide number of reasons, usually having no idea who is in that vehicle, what weapons they may or may not have access to, and what their intentions might be. On each stop, an officer must choose to approach either on the driver side or passenger side. In this article, we are going to talk about some pros and cons of each.
In my experience, both in practice and observing others, this is the most popular and used most often. It allows you to make direct contact with the driver, and speak with him and gather documents without either of you having to reach through the car or past other passengers. You are able to see most areas surrounding the driver seat: his lap, his hands for the majority of the time, the floorboard, some of the interior of the door if it is a sedan or other smaller car, and some of the center console area. If your state has inspection and/or registration stickers on the driver side of the windshield, a driver side approach allows you to take a quick step past the B-pillar to check it before returning to the safer area back behind the B-Pillar. The driver side approach also allows you to go hands on with the driver immediately (depending on windows and door locks), should that stop go south in a hurry.
This approach does come with some limitations, particularly with safety. The way most cars are designed make it very difficult to see inside of the center console and glove box, which is wear a lot of people keep their documents. Because of this, you are going to lose sight of the driver’s hands for a brief, but important, period. Any way of trying to get a better view of these areas usually involves moving past the B-Pillar and exposing more of yourself. Being on the driver side also exposes you to traffic, assuming the vehicle does what it is supposed to and pulls over to the right. There are ways you can negate this by the way you position your vehicle, but there is always going to be risk involved. You also have a more limited view of passengers from this side, so always make sure their hands are visible, even if you have to order them to do so.
The passenger side approach is widely considered to be much safer. It gives you the element of surprise, as most people expect the officer to come to the driver side. It almost always gets you away from traffic. And while standing behind the B-Pillar on the driver side makes you a tough target to hit, standing behind the B-Pillar on the passenger side makes you an even tougher target and gives you more time to react. It is also far easier to see inside of center consoles and glove boxes when the driver reaches inside them. While you can’t see the entirety of the driver side of the vehicle like you can from the driver side, you can see a lot of it while also being able to see inside the passenger area of the vehicle as well.
This approach isn’t without its downsides. The time to walk from your vehicle up to the one you have stopped is longer, giving the driver more time to think about what he could do if he sees you coming from that side. If you have to go hands on with the driver at any point, you either have to go in from the passenger door (which is not recommended at all for obvious reasons) or go all the way around the vehicle, giving the driver time to drive off or retrieve a weapon. Being on the passenger side also makes it harder to do things like detect DUIs because you are farther away from the driver, making it harder to smell alcohol on their breath.
Those are just some of the pros and cons to both driver side approach and passenger side approach on traffic stops. If you have some other reasons for why you prefer one over the other, be sure to drop a comment. Personally, I’ve always preferred approaching on the driver side. I like being able to control the driver if needed without having to go around the car. I also prefer what I can and can’t see on that side rather than the passenger side. With that said, if something about the stop gives me an odd feeling, or if traffic on the driver side is bad, I won’t hesitate to use the passenger side to give me that element of surprise and/or added safety.
I also think your approach depends on your primary reason for making a stop. If you are just working traffic to write tickets and keep the road safer, then your approach should just be whatever you feel is safest and most comfortable for you. If you prefer to make stops for the primary purpose of criminal interdiction, and aren’t lucky enough to work for a bigger department that rides tandom, I highly recommend finding another proactive officer on your shift to work traffic and make stops with. That will give you the ability to have someone approaching on both the driver and passenger side, increasing what you can see in the car and obviously making it safer on what potentially could be more dangerous stops.
No matter why you are making stops or what approach you take, just remember to not get complacent, expect the unexpected, keep your eyes open, watch the hands, and make sure you go home safe at the end of your shift.