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A traffic stop is one of the ways police officers use to enforce road laws. It involves the temporary detention of a driver of a vehicle by the police so they can investigate a potential crime or minor law violation. There are various reasons for a police officer to pull you over, which includes common road-related infringements, such as speeding, distracted driving, and more.

Like most drivers, you’ve probably been stopped by a traffic cop at some point. You may have noticed the officer tapping or touching your tail light while walking from the patrol car to your window. Why do they do that? Is there reason for you to be concerned? Let’s find out.

car pulled over by a police
A traffic stop involves the temporary detention of a driver of a vehicle by the police so they can investigate a potential crime or minor law violation.

Why cops may touch tail lights at a traffic stop

A tap or touch on your tail light during a stop isn’t a superstitious practice for the cop, rather it’s an action that is thought to help protect the cop’s well-being.

Tapping or touching the tail light is mainly done to leave a thumbprint on the glass. Everyone knows that thumbprints adhere easily to glass and can be used to identify and connect suspects to the scene of the crime. But why are the police doing it for harmless traffic stops?

Conducting traffic stops could be unsafe for police officers. This is because there have been instances where suspects have responded to stops with either attempts to escape, or at worse, retaliation. This sounds unlikely, but it remains a possibility. Taking precautions during stops takes into consideration that the driver or passengers could be dangerous.

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Any driver could also be in possession of illegal substances, like drugs or alcohol, or prohibited items, like illegally acquired guns or ammunition. Amidst the fear of getting caught during the stop, people can react irrationally and resort to violence.

Additionally, there is a correlation between drivers speeding and the likelihood that they could be escaping from a crime. Or sometimes, drivers could simply be speeding because they are driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs or alcohol and are incapable of properly assessing their speed.

tail light of a vehicle
Tapping or touching the tail light is mainly done by the cops to leave a thumbprint on the glass.

In case the officer who conducted the stop is injured or worse, then his fingerprint will be able to connect him to the suspect’s vehicle. The practice may stem from the idea of a very unlikely possibility but it could aid in getting a conviction down the line.

Another reason for tapping the suspect vehicle’s tail light is to startle the driver. Imagine a situation where the passengers are amidst the panic of hiding evidence. Not suspecting the officer’s proximity, the sound of the officer tapping the tail light might startle the motorist and give him ample time to catch them in the act. Their behavior could also give the officer clues on whether he should be cautious or not.

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If they can see that whoever is inside the stopped car is moving fast to hide something, then the officer needs to be more cautious. This tactic of tapping the suspect’s vehicles to surprise them has been proven to increase arrests of people in possession of prohibited substances and unlicensed firearms.

The Risks of the Practice

The simple act of touching the tail light may compromise the officer’s safety. A mere tap or touch on someone’s tail light may not cost much time or effort for the police officer, but a situation could arise in any second where milliseconds and small movements matter, it could be an unnecessary risk. Approaching any suspect is dangerous, especially considering they’re inside their vehicle, and the police officer may not always see what the driver is doing inside the cabin.

There are numerous ways for a suspect to retaliate. They could pull out a weapon and shoot from inside their vehicle, or they could use the vehicle itself to harm the officer. Touching the tail light could take up the officer’s valuable attention and make them susceptible to these kinds of attacks.

police inspecting a car
Another reason for tapping the suspect vehicle’s tail light is to startle the driver.

Is this Still Useful?

Originally, this practice was a crude method of making evidence that a traffic stop did occur. Before the age of technology, a stopped vehicle could easily escape because there was only the testimony of the officer that would connect the suspect to the scene of the crime. Even then, its usefulness might not even be worth the risks since fingerprints can be smudged and washed away in wet weather.

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Nowadays, police cars are equipped with dash cams that can take a record of information, such as the stopped vehicle’s model, color, and of course, license plate. Even police officers are fitted with body cams strapped to their chests to record everything in front of them in case an altercation occurs. These recording devices have been invaluable for investigating incidents. Additionally, it is also now common for high-traffic roads to be fitted with CCTV cameras in areas, such as intersections, to make finding fleeing culprits easier.

Technology has made the practice of using this crude method to trace suspects impractical. So if a police officer touches your tail light in a routine stop, then they might just be doing it out of habit, or doing it to startle you.

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Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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