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'We call it the finger dance," the Toronto police officer said. "We watch the person check the glove box, the armrest, over both visors, looking for an insurance slip they know doesn't exist. We wait."

Driving without insurance is a $5,000 fine. It's worth the resources to catch offenders, and definitely a charge that will get those of us being shafted for ever-higher rates to enthusiastically add a "Hell, yeah" to the ticket. Police have heard it all ("It's in my girlfriend's purse"); yet for the officer, the game plays out over and over: they know they don't have it, you know they don't have it, and they know you know they don't have it.

He says technology is good. "We can check vehicles via our systems; as an investigative tool, it gives us a general indication, and we then can verify the information with the company." That little piece of pink paper? Even if it says it's good for the remainder of the year, if you quit paying or have your coverage cancelled, they're going to know. Like having a home alarm sticker on your window but no alarm, it's not about the show.

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There is little a cop hasn't experienced while on traffic duty. From rage to tears to shock to cleavage to imminent bodily emissions, I asked a Hamilton officer what, if anything, makes a difference.

"Be polite and honest. It's impossible not to be nervous, but officers aren't looking to destroy someone's day. Don't reach into the glove box, or under the seat; we immediately think guns and drugs. Drop your window; I prefer that to having to rap on it, which can be a negative start."

Years ago, we were instructed to have the paperwork ready. Now, any driver seen reaching for anything becomes a threat to an approaching officer. My dad would actually get out of the car and walk back to the police car; don't do this.

Like any profession, there are good cops and bad cops. I've known some bullies behind the badge, but I also did a ride-along with an OPP officer a few years back that was, honestly, terrifying.

Several times during her shift, I watched as she approached cars pulled to the shoulder of the highway to ascertain why they had stopped. Tinted windows meant she had no clue what she was approaching; a run of the plate would reveal if it had been reported stolen, but what was happening inside that car could be anyone's guess. Could we please, once and for all, outlaw dark aftermarket tinting and have a definitive, enforceable standard?

Each time, she unsnapped the strap on her gun, which reminded me she had to be ready for anything. If you come at an officer as a perceived threat and they shoot you in the arm or leg, it only means one thing: they missed.

I learned a lot from my OPP officer that day. The job has a huge psychological component; a man was walking along the Niagara-bound QEW beside the centre median when we pulled up behind him. I saw a guy in his 20s with a backpack taking a mid-morning stroll along a six-lane highway – admittedly not a bright plan, but other than needing a haircut and a belt to keep his pants up, he didn't look that different from my own kids.

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From the second she eased the car on to the inside shoulder, she was on high alert. She told me later you don't want someone bolting into traffic, so you can't be aggressive. They might be high, and you don't know on what. They could be armed.

Before she even left the car, she was talking. A constant patter that was simultaneously taking control of the situation while ferreting out information. From the passenger seat, I watched her have him put his backpack in the trunk, pat him down, and get him in the back seat. He asked if I was a cop; I replied that I was a journalist. He sighed, and said, "That's even worse."

Her fingers flew over her computer keyboard, entering information he was supplying and from his ID. She never stopped talking to him, finding out he was taking a short cut across the highway to a construction job. He'd been hopping the fences on the service road. She alluded to "something he had to take care of back home," and he nodded. He had an extensive record, he was due back in court, and the charges involved assault. She told me this after she'd deposited him to his work site. I saw a stupid kid; she saw possible danger. She was right; I was wrong.

At some point, most drivers will be pulled over. There are things to keep in mind, even as your blood pressure mounts.

Do

  • Pull to the shoulder safely.
  • Put your car in park; drop your window; put on your interior light if it’s dark out.
  • Tell any passengers to shut up.
  • Wait for the officer to approach you. It might take a few minutes.
  • Be polite and answer honestly.
  • Don’t argue. You can have your day in court if you disagree.

Don't

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  • Get out of your car.
  • Make a move for your ownership and insurance. Get it when asked.
  • Be offensive. Fastest way to make things worse. Nobody has ever ranted and raved their way to a reduced ticket.
  • Lie. They have advanced technology, and officers are trained to read personal cues.

They may be the last people you want to see behind you on the roadway, but they're the first people you call when there's trouble.

lorraineonline.ca

Please send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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