Traffic

Think you can outrun the law on a traffic stop? You may be right, but not for long

Washington State Patrol and local fire personnel work at a Nov. 18 accident scene where four people were injured in a two-vehicle crash on South Samish Way near the northbound Interstate 5 on-ramp. Vehicle pursuits are extremely dangerous for the officer, the fleeing suspect and the general public.
Washington State Patrol and local fire personnel work at a Nov. 18 accident scene where four people were injured in a two-vehicle crash on South Samish Way near the northbound Interstate 5 on-ramp. Vehicle pursuits are extremely dangerous for the officer, the fleeing suspect and the general public. The Bellingham Herald

Question: Not that I plan on doing it, but what would happen if I tried to outrun the cops on a traffic stop?

Answer: Let’s work from the assumption that you’re being pulled over for a simple traffic violation and that you’re not a suspect in a heinous crime. Understandably, cops make a greater effort to catch suspects who by their very freedom present a risk to the community than they do for someone who doesn’t use a turn signal.

Outcome No. 1: If you sped away from the patrol car, there is a real possibility that you might get away. At least it would seem that way at the time.

Vehicle pursuits are extremely dangerous for the officer, the fleeing suspect and the general public. For that reason, most law enforcement agencies will quickly end the pursuit of a suspect for a non-violent offense if the fleeing driver gets too crazy.

That doesn’t mean the suspect really gets away. I recently rode with an officer during a DUI emphasis patrol and noticed that before turning on the emergency lights he would notify the dispatch center of the license plate of the vehicle he intended to stop. Since they know who you are, that apparent escape might end up with a patrol car in your driveway waiting for you to get home. See the third outcome for what happens from here.

Outcome No. 2: In your effort to escape, you may crash. Unless you’re James Bond-cool, your body will be experiencing the effects of a high-stress situation, including loss of fine motor skills, narrowed vision and possibly loss of bladder control. (Get ready to clean your car seat.) Two of those three are critically important for safe driving.

Tragically, we’ve had people in our community lose their lives while fleeing from a traffic stop. In the most recent local incident, the pursuing officer ended the chase because it got too dangerous. The fleeing driver continued at a high speed and about a mile or so later crashed, killing the passenger in the vehicle.

Outcome No. 3: You get caught. Maybe you come to your senses and realize that the risk of eluding the police outweighs the consequences of getting caught, or maybe you put your car in the ditch and have no chance to run. Either way, attempting to elude a police vehicle turns a traffic infraction into a class C felony. It is also a surefire method of getting your driver license revoked.

I realize that this is just a hypothetical question (or at least I hope it is). Most drivers are more concerned about making sure they don’t elude the police, so I’ll add one caveat that the law includes as a defense to eluding a police vehicle. If “driving after the signal to stop was reasonable under the circumstances,” you are not attempting to elude the police.

As an example of where that might apply, let’s imagine that as you’re driving you look in your rear view mirror and see a patrol car with its lights on behind you. You signal to pull over, but look ahead and see that a quarter-mile down the road the shoulder widens, and if you wait to pull over there, you could get all the way off the roadway, making it safer for you and the officer. Not only would that be “reasonable under the circumstances,” the officer would most likely appreciate it as well.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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