Traffic Police

The enforcement of driving rules in the US

Despite the TV and film image of speeding reckless drivers, traffic laws in the US are taken seriously and strictly enforced. Each state has an agency responsible for enforcing highway traffic rules and regulations, e.g. state troopers or the highway patrol, employing patrol cars, motorcycles and aircraft.

Traffic laws are also enforced by local police, such as county sheriff’s officers or municipal police. If a policeman wants you to stop, he usually drives along behind you flashing his overhead lights (which may be red, blue or yellow or a combination) and possibly sounding his siren. You should pull over and stop, if possible on the hard shoulder. Once you’ve stopped, stay in your car and let the officer come to you.

Keep your hands in view, e.g. on the steering wheel, and don’t do anything that could be misconstrued, like reaching for your licence in the glove compartment (an officer may think that you’re going for a gun). If you’re stopped by an unmarked vehicle, ask to see the officer’s identification.

Whatever you’re stopped for, the officer will ask to see your licence and may want to see your car registration document and insurance card, so always carry them with you. Don’t joke with or antagonise an officer, as this may lead to a ticket, whether you’ve done anything illegal or not. A foreign accent and an apology may help you get a warning rather than a ticket. If you’re stopped for speeding or another ‘minor’ offence such as failing to stop at a ‘STOP’ sign or making an illegal turn, you may get away with a caution (called a ‘friendly warning’) in some states.

If you receive a ticket for a motoring offence, you may have the choice of paying a statutory fine or going to court. If you’re stopped for drunk driving or another serious offence, you may be arrested.

What to do in case of an arrest

If you’re arrested for a traffic violation, you may be taken directly to court, to the police department, or before some other agency or person authorised to set and accept bail. There you must decide whether to plead guilty, no contest or not guilty. A plea of guilty or no contest may result in a fine, which you must pay before you’re released. If you plead not guilty, the court sets a hearing date and asks you to post an appearance bond, which is a sum of money to guarantee your appearance on that date.

Some 40 states and the District of Columbia accept AAA Bail and Guaranteed Arrest Bond Certificates in lieu of cash or surety bonds for traffic violations, although only 30 states are required by law to accept them. You must deposit your AAA membership card and bond with the court and may then leave the jurisdiction. If you appear for trial, your card and certificate are returned to you or your AAA club. If, however, you elect to forfeit your bond and don’t appear for trial, the court notifies the AAA club of the forfeiture.

The AAA then arranges for payment and recovers your membership card from the court. You must then reimburse the club for the amount spent on your behalf and your membership card is returned. In states without mandatory acceptance of AAA bonds, acceptance is at the discretion of the magistrate who sets bail. In some states police may accept your driving licence in lieu of a bond.

If you break the law, you may be ‘tagged’ by the police, but not stopped and may receive a summons later. If you’re driving a rented car, the rental company receives the summons and may debit the amount of any fine from your credit card.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.


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