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Posted on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5:55 a.m.

Mysteries revealed about police driving, whether it's lights and siren or just prowling

By Rich Kinsey


Every wonder why police officers drive like they do sometimes?

Janis Lacis |

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.

Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for



Tue, Jun 12, 2012 : 1:25 p.m.

Good information, but may I suggest getting a copy editor? ("Every wonder...?" ???)


Sat, Jun 9, 2012 : 2:06 p.m.

Problem with this is that there are many citizens that think, "If they can do it, so can I."


Fri, Jun 8, 2012 : 6:17 p.m.

Former officer Rich Kinsey: thank you again for your efforts to better inform the Ann Arbor Area Public on the matter of police procedures. Unfortunately, this time, you chose a topic on which many of us ARE already better informed. As "Bcar" and SEC Fan point out: (1) Generalizing about police officers' (driving and non-driving) behaviors is not only suspicious and overly vague - it denies the reality of behaviors citizens KNOW to be wrong and even unlawful. (2) Related: Far too often in direct contact with police, many people observe that officers know LESS than the average citizen about specific things (like firearms use and firearms laws) and are prone to rely (literally) on "the authority of badge & uniform" when justifying their own actions. (3) The most onerous and harmful part of the law enforcement credo is that which says: Anything a citizen does is subject to LEO oversight and action and any action other than total compliance constitutes "interfering with police." This is anti-thetical to a free society where independent thought and action are supposed to be protected. I am all for being on the side of law enforcement people - who have jobs very few of us actually want to do ourselves. But this kind over-generalized blanket "explanations" of police procedures and actions tend to cause more skepticism than understanding because they fly in the face of actual experience and observation.


Fri, Jun 8, 2012 : 9:58 a.m.

Rich, are you sure about being required to pull over and stop for ALL emergency vehicles? My understanding is that you must yield (i.e. not obstruct) emergency vehicles other than police cars.


Fri, Jun 8, 2012 : 1:26 a.m.

Michigan's "Panic Stop" regulations as a response to seeing light/ siren should be revisited and recalled. The end result makes for a greater hazard in the event of emergency response that a simple "yield to..." traffic policy as other states have. The comments here, and the statement from the former officer writing the article show that the current traffic rules as interpreted in real-world situations make things worse for both the officer, and the innocents.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 7:22 p.m.

I guess I'm missing the point of this column. Is it to rationalize/explain why we sometimes see the police apparently breaking traffic laws? If so, I simply don't understand. Without actually knowing why the police officer is breaking the law in each and every case, the rationale is pointless. Are we simply supposed to assume anytime a police officer breaks the law, they're doing so for an official purpose? I, for one, am not comfortable with that. Mr. Kinsey, I think your teacher was absolutely correct. The police should be setting the example as we are not mind readers. Writing a list of "possible" reasons doesn't really help.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 10:33 p.m.

I do not see them setting any example I wish to adopt, nor teach my children to follow. Too many inconsistencies and examples of arrogance. I have too much history to ignore. On the other hand, some have been very good, professional and not acting along the lines of the norm.

J. Zarman

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5:52 p.m.

Can Mr. Kinsey or anyone explain what should have happened in this case? I was northbound on State Street, approaching the I-94 overpass. Unbeknownst to me, a fire engine was exiting eastbound I-94, had a green light at the end of the exit ramp, and turned left into the center merge lane for northbound State. My first contact with the fire engine was a blast from their horn (and those are LOUD). As I moved to the right shoulder and slowed to a stop, I saw that the fire engine had its toplights flashing. But the sirens were not sounding. Had the fire engine been sounding its siren, I would have glanced left, seen the truck with flashing toplights, and slowed to a stop on the right well in advance. Instead, the blast from the horn, coming from my left-rear blind spot, startled me so much I could have lost control of my vehicle. Under what conditions is it right for a fire engine to engage in emergency driving, with the sirens off?


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5:07 p.m.

I am amazed when I see people who upon hearing a siren, don't pull over to the shoulder ( right side/lane ) of the road,when emergency vehicle's are approaching. They often times just stop in the lane they are in. This has got to be very difficult to maneuverer a ambulance or fire fighting equipment not knowing the intentions of the driver.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

or they don't pull over but turn left into a car wash instead.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5:06 p.m.

Does driving around talking on a cellphone constitute professional behavior? Roughly half the time I see a cop they are on a cell phone. I didn't know they are standard issue.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5 p.m.

Washtenaw county needs to replace their patrol car license plate bulbs, I think ALL of them seem to have burnt out.....


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 4:52 p.m.

This is an awful article, a pile of rationalizations and excuses for being tremendously irresponsible. This is truth: police drive like that because they don't expect anybody to stop them. Here's my citations: People die in this one, fair warning:


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 4:26 p.m.

cops are people too and they make mistakes like the rest of us, I just hope the next time I make a minor mistake the cop won't chew my you know what off.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 3:57 p.m.

The comments here remind me of the Andy Griffith episode when Gomer performed a citizen arrest of Barney for making a u-turn in downtown Mayberry. I think everyone should quit Pyleing on Rich for explaining why things are the way they are. Anyhow, I got Rich pegged as more of the Sheriff Taylor type.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 3:57 p.m.

happydave57, I can top that. I once watched an Ann Arbor police officer use his lights/siren to get through the lights near Arborland. I jokingly told my partner he must be headed to the donut out of curiousity I followed him - there must have been a crime happening at Dom's Donuts - since that is where he went to in such a hurry.


Fri, Jun 8, 2012 : 1:22 a.m.

Granted, Dom Bakery is Incredible, and there's the drive-through window as well. If you have not been there, you should check them out!


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 7:18 p.m.

Several years ago my wife and I witnessed the same - Ann Arbor cop, lights on near Arborland, lights off as they cross the city limits - final destination???? Dom Donuts in Ypsi.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 3:50 p.m.

Professional driver's my butt! If they are so highly trained then why was it that Tuesday night I had to swerve to avoid a speeding washtanaw county sheriff in bridgewater he was going at least 70 in a 35 no lights on over the double yellow! They think they are above the law!


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 3 p.m.

Mr. Kinsey- I, too, appreciate your articles, but this one confuses me. I have always understood that the law did NOT allow police vehicles to ignore traffic rules unless their lights were on, except in very limited situations. See MCL 257.603


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 7:19 p.m.

Well, subsection (5) does support Mr. Kinsey's view. When "engaged in an emergency run in which silence is required," they can basically do whatever they want, or at least within the scope of the exemptions outlined in the code. Seems to me that some officers interpret "an emergency run in which silence is required" rather loosely, however. I've seen a lot of questionable driving by officers without lights or sirens, when it was evident that they were not taking part in any kind of "emergency run."


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 6:05 p.m.

After reading what fjord posted as a reply, does this article say that the police know they are breaking the law when they violate road laws/rules and do not use their lights and/or sirens? I would like to see a response from Mr. Kinsey to enlighten all of us. Good job, fjord!


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 5:52 p.m.

Here are the relevant sections of Section 257.603 of the Michigan Vehicle Code: (3) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle may do any of the following: (a) Park or stand, irrespective of this act. (b) Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation. (c) Exceed the prima facie speed limits so long as he or she does not endanger life or property. (d) Disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in a specified direction. (4) The exemptions granted in this section to an authorized emergency vehicle apply only when the driver of the vehicle while in motion sounds an audible signal by bell, siren, air horn, or exhaust whistle as may be reasonably necessary, except as provided in subsection (5), and when the vehicle is equipped with at least 1 lighted lamp displaying a flashing, oscillating, or rotating red or blue light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet in a 360 degree arc unless it is not advisable to equip a police vehicle operating as an authorized emergency vehicle with a flashing, oscillating or rotating light visible in a 360 degree arc. In those cases, a police vehicle shall display a flashing, oscillating, or rotating red or blue light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the front of the vehicle. Only police vehicles that are publicly owned shall be equipped with a flashing, oscillating, or rotating blue light that when activated is visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet in a 360 degree arc. (5) A police vehicle shall retain the exemptions granted in this section to an authorized emergency vehicle without sounding an audible signal if the police vehicle is engaged in an emergency run in which silence is required.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 4:20 p.m.

Exactly!! Another widespread example of police reinterpreting laws for self-service.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 2:49 p.m.

"Keep in mind that police officers are expert drivers. They know the limits of their police cars — motorcycles or bicycles..." Uummm, I disagree. 99% are NOT expert drivers, at least in my professional opinion. I've attended many, many performance driving schools, hold numerous licenses at various proving grounds, test tracks, and race tracks around the county and I'm not even sure that I'd consider myself a true "expert driver." I spent 8 years as a chassis development engineer with hundreds of hours behind the wheel of all manner of vehicles. The police academy driving program is not that intensive of a program, nor that long... This also applies to "expert police shooters" that IMO are not experts at all. FBI statistics show that "expert shooters" involved in actual police shootings only have an 18% hit percentage (if I remember correctly), what happens to the other 82% of bullets?? :-O I do agree that there are times when police do need to run hard and fast with or without lights and/or sirens. I also have seen, on numerous occasions, police speed withOUT need or cause. Heck, I would too if I had the protection of the blue code and a badge ;-)

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:41 p.m.

I had no idea I was a professional driver just because I know the feel of my car and don't "chirp" the curbs. Good to know that I can now do whatever I want on the roads.

Macabre Sunset

Fri, Jun 8, 2012 : 7:15 p.m.

Hey, I just maneuvered a rental car through downtown Paris without hitting anyone or anything while downing a rather delicious ham-and-cheese baguette. I now feel qualified to run red lights and handle jelly doughnuts.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 2:51 p.m.

Unless you are a professional driver I doubt you've had the pursuit and precision driving training all police officers are required to take and maintain.

Bill Wilson

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:41 p.m.

Mr. Kinsey, I do enjoy your pieces... but I'd suggest that you reign it in a bit, as you've fallen victim to a common aspect/theme of Ann Arbor: the lack of accountability that playing victim brings on. Police officers are no different than anyone else. If we line up twenty officers, the majority will be good officers who sincerely try to set a good example because they are inherently good people. Thee or four will demonstrate differing levels of apathy. And one or two will leave us wondering how the system allowed this type of individual to slip through the cracks: the power trusted to them will corrupt them. It's the latter two types of groups who are the problem, but with the "blue wall of silence"... they can get away with bad behavior for years without being caught (if indeed, they are ever caugght). There are problem officers, but the only people who can do something about these types, sadly, turn a blind eye most of the time.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:33 p.m.

What is the rational for NOT using turn indicatior?????


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:12 p.m.

Does this include randomly running red lights? I have far too frequently seen officers run, at a very relaxed pace, solid reds.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 3:56 p.m.

Because they can. Who is going to stop them and give them a ticket? Should I have stopped the police car that violated the pedestrian crossing law and told them so? You are coirrect - I too have seen far too many examples where they are no better than the general driving population.

Rabid Wolverine

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:11 p.m.

Sure, there are legitimate reasons for different strategies when driving (employing lights, lights and sirens or nothing) depending on the situation. One fine example that I saw last week as I was driving southbound on 23 right at the merger of 14/23, was a LEO with lights on flying northbound on the shoulder to get around the typical merging traffic. After he got around them all, he turned his lights off and resumed a typical speed. There are good reasons for LEO's to use lights/sirens and there are illegitimate reasons.

Rabid Wolverine

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 3:05 p.m.

Actually, I have two LEO's in my family and 2 volunteer firefighters. I know plenty of what goes on in a squad car. In the instance I saw, the intention was very obvious due to the nature of their driving. I didn't miss the point of the story at all. Had he still been pursuing something that required any immediacey to his actions, he would not have slowed back down to under the speed limit after he was past congestion. If the call he was on didn't require immediacey, then there is no reason to attempt to pass slowed traffic on the shoulder in the first place.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:23 p.m.

Good job! You missed the whole point. See do you KNOW where the officer was going, why he was going there, what kind of call he was responding to, why he might not want to leave his lights on, etc, etc? No. You don't. But it is easy for you to assume that he/she simply wanted to get around traffic for no reason. What you are failing to understand is that it is often easier to use your lights only for periods of dense traffic then turn them off as the majority of drivers are too dumb to know how to get out of the way and stop. This is why you may often see an officer use their lights only at intersections or to get through thick traffic congestion before turning them off. In this day and age of EVERYBODY having cell phone cameras, police cars having cameras in them, and people being more than willing to call and complain about an officer's driving I think it is pretty unlikely that officers are going to just flip their lights on all willy nilly and drive crazy without reason. But since you have likely never sat behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle, have no idea of the stress of driving lights and sirens, know little about police work, and know nothing of the circumstances surrounding the example you cite... you are probably right. It was probably totally illegitimate.

Ron Granger

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:09 p.m.

Rich's article completely glosses over the real truth. Those of us with friends and family who are cops have experienced first hand how speeding off duty is frequent and sometimes very excessive. A detective bringing his open cocktail in your car? Yep, that too. Oh, the stories I could tell. But the badge might hit me over the head.

Ron Granger

Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:05 p.m.

"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." So what's going on with the investigation of that Pittsfield crash?


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 12:16 p.m.

Gee, and I always thought that the cops were driving fast without lights or sirens because they just heard that Tim Hortons put out a tray of fresh-baked doughnuts.......


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

Boy, thats a good one...never heard that one before.... Maybe they were in route to assist a loved one of yours...


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 12:05 p.m.

See....I don't like cops. Ok...that's not fair. I don't like BAD cops...DIRTY cops. It's like a double injustice that the person who is SUPPOSED to be a good doing bad things. Now that being said....I really like reading your pieces Mr. Kinsey. It's nice to hear from a good cop once in a while.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:46 p.m.

I agree. A cop that breaks the law should be punished more severely than a citizen. Not only do the police KNOW the law, they are upheld to protect it. When a cop commits a crime it is a double injustice.


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 11:15 a.m.

A good attempt at making an excuse for the actions of a few. Not too long ago, during the heat of the pedestrian crossing debate, I watched a police car turn a corner moving through a crosswalk being used by pedestrians. This is against the law, according to AA. No lights, no siren and no speed. Just decided to turn the corner rather than wait until the cross walk was clear. Go figure!


Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 10:26 a.m.

An sometimes a drag race is a drag race. Cause I watched 2 cruisers race south on Carpenter right after the light turns green.