Column: Mysteries revealed about police driving, whether it's lights and siren or just prowling
Janis Lacis | Dreamstime.com
Almost 30 years ago, I was westbound on East William Street and making a right turn onto northbound South Main when the unthinkable happened. While executing my right turn, my right rear tire rolled over or “chirped” the curb. I was in a fully marked Ann Arbor Police patrol car.
The field training officer I was assigned, “Mad Dog,” almost had a stroke. He was furious! Mad Dog’s blue eyes widened then narrowed into eye daggers. The vein on his forehead popped out, his face quivered and turned crimson and he enthusiastically explained to me that I was now a “professional” driver and as such should be setting an example for the public. It was a point in time I will never forget. His harsh words stung, but he was absolutely right.
That being said, there are times when citizens see a police car “driving crazy” and must either get cranky or shake their head with wonder. For instance have you ever seen a police car exceeding the speed limit — spelled F-L-Y-I-N-G — without the toplights or siren on? There are good reasons for that.
Mad Dog’s blue eyes widened then narrowed into eye daggers. The vein on his forehead popped out, his face quivered and turned crimson and he enthusiastically explained to me that I was now a “professional” driver and as such should be setting an example for the public.
Keep in mind that police officers are expert drivers. They know the limits of their police cars — motorcycles or bicycles — and they know the traffic patterns in their patrol areas. There are times that an officer can move through traffic more quickly without using lights and siren.
The reason for this is traffic law and civil liability. Traffic laws dictate that a motorist, when confronted by an emergency vehicle — fire truck or ambulance with toplights and siren activated, police car with toplights activated but when responding to a crime in progress without a siren — must pull to the right and stop. What is in the back of an officer’s mind is that, while operating his emergency equipment, if there is crash, that officer will probably be held responsible.
With emergency equipment activated, motorists in front of emergency vehicles sometimes panic and do some wild unexpected outlandish things. For instance, some motorist, especially on the freeway will pull to the left and stop. Some may do nothing because they do not look in their mirrors and cannot hear the siren over the car stereo. Some will just freeze and stop right in front of the emergency vehicle — which can cause an officer to experience an immediate involuntary contraction of the... "kegel muscles."
Therefore there are times of the day and night that an officer can weave through traffic and get somewhere more quickly without using their emergency equipment. Without emergency equipment activated, an officer can pass other cars on the right or left on multiple lane roads. With emergency equipment activated, they can only pass on the left of a car that might at any minute decide to obey the law and pull over to the right.
Officers may also appear to drive “crazy” when taking off after speeders or other traffic violators. The stationary officer or officer travelling the opposite direction of the violator, really has to accelerate HARD in order to catch up to someone who is already speeding.
In that case veteran officers will not activate their toplights until they are close enough to read a license plate. The reason being that if the speeder also happens to be a thief in a stolen car or just leaving a crime, the toplights give the criminal early warning, and the chase is on. Closing the distance before activating the emergency lights gives the offender less of a head start if the criminal decides to flee from the police.
With the advent of cell phones, motorists often call in drivers operating dangerously on the roadway. These calls prompt police cars to sometimes speed down the road without their emergency lights on. These are called “high speed sweeps” looking for a car wanted in a BOL or BOLO — “be on the lookout.” Again, so the bad guy does not see and thus get a head start, officers will not activate their emergency equipment. They can cover more ground searching without alerting the offender.
Sometimes when responding to alarms or other crimes in progress, an officer will turn off their emergency light and their headlights for the last block or two. This is done to “invisibly deploy” and sneak up on the criminal, instead of giving the crook a warning to flee.
There are times when an officer is responding to a burglary or robbery alarm, and they are instructed to cancel their response. I always hated just turning my lights off and blending back into traffic because I thought citizens might think I had just been joy riding with my emergency equipment on. I would therefore make a right turn into a residential area and then another right turn so I was off the main road and out of sight when I shut my emergency equipment down.
At night officers patrolling residential areas will often drive without headlights and slowly — again to try to not to tip off criminals in the area. If they spot say a dome light of a car going on they can get there quickly and check if it is an owner or a crook emptying out the change in your center console. Driving “darked out” at night is the reason some call police cars “prowl cars.”
So Mad Dog, I certainly took heed of your instruction and was always cognizant of the public watching my “professional” driving. I wish I could tell you I never chirped a curb again in a marked car, but rest assured when I did, I had flashbacks of your lesson years ago. Sorry dude, but even professional drivers sometimes make mistakes — that’s why they put walls and fences around racetracks.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.