Top 10 Traffic Stop Reasons

There are many reasons why a traffic stop may be necessary, with record checks, speeding, and vehicle defects being just a few examples. This review will provide you with 10 reasons why a traffic stop may occur.

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Sara Routhier, Managing Editor and Outreach Director, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming world o...

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Rachael Brennan has been working in the insurance industry since 2006 when she began working as a licensed insurance representative for 21st Century Insurance, during which time she earned her Property and Casualty license in all 50 states. After several years she expanded her insurance expertise, earning her license in Health and AD&D insurance as well. She has worked for small health in...

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Reviewed by Rachael Brennan
Licensed Insurance Agent Rachael Brennan

UPDATED: Apr 28, 2022

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 217 million vehicles driving on American roads today, and 50,000 get pulled over every day. In this study, we cover the top 10 traffic stop reasons to shed light on why police officers pull drivers over and have specific sections to present statistics about how demographic factors like race and gender can play a role.

However, while there are discrepancies based on those factors, police officers are often looking at safe driving as the primary reason when pulling over drivers. The goal of these stops? Reduce fatal crashes.

While advances in safety technology make driving far less dangerous now than it was in decades past, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2017 there were 37,133 fatalities as a result of motor vehicle crashes.

While safety technologies in automobiles – for example, seat belts, airbags, and impact resistance – largely focus on lowering injury and fatality rates when a collision occurs, law enforcement officials work to prevent collisions in the first place by identifying drivers who make dangerous driving decisions on the road, such as disobeying traffic laws, operating an unsafe vehicle, or driving erratically.

Such driving can lead to a driver needing high-risk auto insurance, which raises insurance rates significantly. The good news for drivers is that traffic stops during COVID-19 have gone down with fewer cars on the street, which may continue for some time as states struggle with stopping coronavirus outbreaks. This will likely reduce the number of people needing high-risk insurance.

Remember, you don’t have to be doing anything wrong to get pulled over or get in a car accident. True, there are many reasons to get pulled over, but a traffic stop is meant to keep drivers safe. Often the reasons are far less extreme. 

An accident or a ticket can raise your rates by quite a bit. Fortunately, there are many ways to save on auto insurance. The quickest and easiest way is to compare live quotes from different auto insurance companies. Enter your ZIP code into our free online quote comparison tool to do just that and start saving today.

In this article about traffic stops, we’ll also cover the following topics:

  • Traffic stop questions
  • What is a traffic stop?
  • What is a routine traffic stop?
  • The meaning behind a traffic stop.

Let’s get started.

What are the demographics of drivers that are most likely to be pulled over by the police?

Sometimes, police officers driving in obvious police cars with blue and white lights attached to the roof of the car are the ones who do the traffic stops. However, more and more police departments have started using an unmarked police car to pull over unsuspecting drivers.

However, certain demographics have more chances of getting pulled over by police than others, and the consequences for drivers who are subject to a traffic stop vary significantly.

According to the Department of Justice, there are 19 million traffic stops per year. The data shows that African Americans are more likely than other racial groups to be pulled over, with 9.8% of Black drivers experiencing a traffic stop annually.

This Department of Justice is part of our traffic stop data collection that was used for our rankings in this article. In addition, we use this data to analyze how often different demographics are pulled over and how these statistics might be cross-examined with racial profiling statistics, though those are not the explicit subject of our article.

The data also shows that women are less likely than men to be pulled over. In addition, 18-24-year-old young drivers are the most likely age group to have a police-initiated traffic stop, with the likelihood steadily decreasing with age. Since drivers under the age of 25 are less experienced behind the wheel, they often also pay higher insurance rates.Drivers who are pulled over: Demographic Differences. Bar Graphs Not all drivers who are pulled over believe that their stop was justified. In fact, only 80.6 percent of all traffic stops are perceived by drivers to have a legitimate cause.

Not surprisingly, drivers are more likely to perceive the stop as legitimate when police officers provide a reason for the stop (83.7 percent compared to 36.7 percent). Among all traffic stops, police officers provided a reason for the stop in 95.4 percent of cases.

Black drivers are the largest racial group to be pulled over, which contributes to the financial burden of driving while Black in 2019, which includes higher insurance premiums and reduced mobility.

Department of Justice data shows that police are more likely to give women a reason than men, and police are less likely to give Hispanics a reason than other racial groups, which puts the onus on Hispanic drivers to know their legal and auto insurance rights.

Additionally, both Black drivers and Hispanic drivers are significantly less likely to believe they were pulled over justly even when the police officer provides a reason.Drivers' understanding of traffic stop based on race, gender, and age- bar graphs The outcomes of traffic stops vary by demographics as well. Among all traffic stops, only 12.7 percent resulted in no enforcement action. Instead, 36.1 percent of traffic stops led to a warning, 48.8% resulted in a ticket, and 3.7 percent ended in search or arrest.

It is well known that traffic violations increase auto insurance rates.  (note: enforcement actions may not sum to total as respondents may be in more than one category).

While Black drivers and white drivers have similar results from traffic stops, Hispanics are more likely than other races to get a ticket and less likely to get a warning. Hispanics are also the least likely racial group to have no enforcement action taken.

Since auto insurance rates are partially based on driving records, consequences such as getting a ticket or an arrest could also lead to higher premiums, raising the financial burden of driving for certain demographic groups.

Fortunately, there are insurance companies that forgive traffic violations, including those that won’t raise rates for minor driving infractions like traffic tickets.

Graph illustrating drivers' likelihood of getting a traffic ticket based on their race In recent years, a growing body of research has investigated the effectiveness of body cameras in police-initiated contact, such as traffic stops.

In 2016, only 47% of law enforcement agencies used body-worn cameras (BWCs), accounting for 119,000 BWCs nationwide. Among law enforcement agencies that use BWCs, more than 90 percent require their officers to turn the cameras on during traffic stops.

While there is currently no federal law governing the use of body cameras in police-community encounters like traffic stops, several state and local governments have passed legislation regarding their use in an effort to improve police and civilian safety, professionalism, and fairness.

Although some of these may have had an effect, many police departments still employ tactics that target minorities and often lead to a disproportionate amount of discrimination and police on civilian violence.

One of the worst cities for this is Los Angeles, which ranks as our number one city with the greatest potential for reducing its police department budget. It also ranks as the worst city for police department spending per capita out of the 20 most populous cities and largest city police budgets.

Los Angeles PD’s spending per resident is $754, $334 higher than the average for all 150 cities in our sample set.

Now, back to the reasons police officers pull over drivers. We have 10 on the list here and it isn’t exhaustive. The number of reasons officers will pull over drivers is likely incredibly large and relates to all sorts of situations like nighttime driving or speeding through a construction zone.

Officers are especially vigilant during rush hour, as some cities have more rush hour fatal crashes than others especially if they are the worst cities for rush hour fatal crashes. What are the top 10 reasons police officers pull over drivers? Scroll down to find out.

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What are the top reasons drivers get pulled over?

To find the top reasons that drivers get pulled over, our researchers analyzed data from the Department of Justice’s U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Police-Public Contact Survey.

In addition to ranking the reasons by how often they occurred, our researchers also analyzed the most likely outcomes (warning, ticket, search/arrest, or no action) and the perceived legitimacy of each reason. Scroll down to see what we found.

#10 – Roadside Sobriety Check

  • Share of all traffic stops: 1.4%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 78.0%
  • No enforcement action: 72.1%
  • Warning: 18.4%
  • Ticket: 4.3%
  • Search or arrest: 8.9%
  • Most likely outcome: No enforcement action

According to the NHTSA, 10,874 people were killed as a result of drunk driving collisions in 2017. This represents an average of one death every 48 minutes and accounted for 29 percent of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the United States during that year.

Across the U.S., it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle with a BAC of .08 or higher. Roadside sobriety checks aim to reduce the amount of drunk or drug-impaired drivers on the road. Police might pull over a driver who is driving erratically and require him or her to perform a roadside sobriety test, which usually consists of three parts:

  1. The horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN)
  2. The walk and turn
  3. The one-leg stand

Police will also often use a “sobriety checkpoint,” which is a predetermined location to stop vehicles at regular intervals and perform sobriety tests on the drivers. For about three out of four drivers, roadside sobriety checks will result in no enforcement action.

#9 – Cell Phone Violation

  • Share of all traffic stops: 1.7%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 74.4%
  • No enforcement action: 4.1%
  • Warning: 22.4%
  • Ticket: 73.6%
  • Search or arrest: 0.5%
  • Most likely outcome: Ticket

Using a cell phone while driving has become a dangerous and all-too-common form of distracted driving.

In 2017, 3,166 fatalities were the result of distracted driving, with 434 of them explicitly linked to the driver’s cell phone use. Despite the prevalence of cellular phones and the role they play in driver distraction, specific laws related to phone use while driving vary widely by state.

For example, some states ban all hand-held phone operations while driving. Other states allow drivers to hold a phone to talk but ban text messaging. State restrictions on cell phone use by junior drivers also vary.

Compared to the other reasons on this list, cell phone violations are least likely to result in an arrest (0.5 percent) but most likely to result in a ticket (73.6 percent). About three-quarters of all cell phone violators perceive the stop to be legitimate.

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#8 – Police Did Not Give a Reason

  • Share of all traffic stops: 2.1%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 36.7%
  • No enforcement action: 35.4%
  • Warning: 31.0%
  • Ticket: 19.8%
  • Search or arrest: 14.5%
  • Most likely outcome: No enforcement action

When the police do not give a reason for a stop, only 36.7 percent of drivers perceive the stop to be legitimate.

Violators who are pulled over without knowing the reason are the most likely to be subject to search or arrest (14.5 percent). The percentage of stops resulting in an arrest when police do not give a reason is about four times higher than the national average.

At the same time, more than a third of drivers who are pulled over without knowing the reason receive no enforcement action.

#7 – Seat Belt Violation

  • Share of all traffic stops: 3.2%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 76.4%
  • No enforcement action: 10.1%
  • Warning: 20.0%
  • Ticket: 69.9%
  • Search or arrest: 2.2%
  • Most likely outcome: Ticket

Using a seat belt dramatically reduces the chance of injury in a collision. In 2017, seat belts saved an estimated 14,955 lives. However, only 89.6 percent of drivers buckle up.

While specific seat belt laws vary from state to state, seat belt violations (not wearing a seat belt when the law requires it) account for 3.2 percent of all traffic stops.

As you can see in the below news clip, traffic stops for even something as simple as not wearing a seat belt can sometimes have dire outcomes:

Stops due to seat belt violations are more likely to result in a ticket compared to the average for all traffic stops. Nine out of ten seat belt violations result in some form of enforcement action.

#6 – Multiple Reasons

  • Share of all traffic stops: 5.8%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 84.0%
  • No enforcement action: 14.3%
  • Warning: 37.0%
  • Ticket: 45.4%
  • Search or arrest: 8.4%
  • Most likely outcome: Ticket

Drivers can also be pulled over for multiple traffic violations at one time, such as speeding while not wearing a seat belt, or using a cell phone while running through a stop sign.

Compared to the averages for all traffic stops, drivers who are pulled over for multiple reasons are more than twice as likely to be subject to search or arrest.

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#5 – Illegal Turn or Lane Change

  • Share of all traffic stops: 6.8%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 75.6%
  • No enforcement action: 8.0%
  • Warning: 45.5%
  • Ticket: 45.2%
  • Search or arrest: 2.7%
  • Most likely outcome: Warning

Not surprisingly, drivers who do not follow the rules of the road are likely to be pulled over. Making an illegal turn (such as a U-turn where a sign forbidding it is posted) or illegal lane change (changing lanes without signaling) accounts for 6.8 percent of all traffic stops.

Drivers who make an illegal turn or lane change are slightly more likely to receive a warning than a citation with penalties. Only 8 percent will receive no enforcement action.

Want to learn more about reckless driving? Check out our full guide to reckless driving, including what effect a reckless driving conviction can have on your auto insurance.

#4 – Stop Sign or Light Violation

  • Share of all traffic stops: 7.3%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 70.5%
  • No enforcement action: 6.2%
  • Warning: 40.3%
  • Ticket: 52.3%
  • Search or arrest: 2.1%
  • Most likely outcome: Ticket

Driving past a stop sign without stopping or driving through a red light account for 7.3 percent of all traffic stops.

Almost every driver who is pulled over for a stop sign or light violation receives some form of enforcement action. More than half of violators receive a ticket (more than the average for all traffic stops), and 4 out of 10 receive a warning.

Drivers who are pulled over for a stop sign or red light traffic violation are less likely to perceive the stop as legitimate when compared to the average of all traffic stops.

#3 – Record Check

  • Share of all traffic stops: 9.8%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 87.7%
  • No enforcement action: 29.8%
  • Warning: 35.4%
  • Ticket: 34.1%
  • Search or arrest: 2.0%
  • Most likely outcome: Warning

During a record check, a police officer will generally run the driver’s license through a computer database to view the driving record and also determine if the driver has any warrants for arrest.

Nearly one in 10 traffic stops are due to a record check. The most likely outcome for drivers who are pulled over for a record check is a warning. Compared to the national average, record checks are less likely to result in a ticket or search/arrest.

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#2 – Vehicle Defect

  • Share of all traffic stops: 12.2%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 85.3%
  • No enforcement action: 17.0%
  • Warning: 63.6%
  • Ticket: 18.3%
  • Search or arrest: 5.1%
  • Most likely outcome: Warning

A vehicle defect occurs when there is an issue that prevents a car from operating safely, such as problems with acceleration, braking, steering, or signaling. Among all defects, broken tail lights, headlights, and turn signals are the most common causes of traffic stops.

According to the NHTSA, about 2 percent of crashes are the result of vehicle defects. Over 60 percent of the time, a driver who is pulled over for a vehicle defect will receive a warning.

Vehicle defect stops are much less likely to result in a ticket compared to all traffic stops.

#1 – Speeding

  • Share of all traffic stops: 40.9%
  • Drivers perceived stop to be legitimate: 90.7%
  • No enforcement action: 2.4%
  • Warning: 30.9%
  • Ticket: 66.0%
  • Search or arrest: 1.7%
  • Most likely outcome: Ticket

At 40.9 percent, speeding accounts for the most traffic stops in the U.S. Speeding is defined as driving faster than the posted speed limit on the road.

In 2017, speeding was responsible for 9,717 fatalities, roughly a quarter of all traffic fatalities that year.

Sometimes, getting caught can be a good thing, such as when a police officer was able to save a baby’s life all because he spotted a car speeding.

Drivers who are pulled over for speeding are the most likely cohort to perceive their stop as being legitimate. Two-thirds of drivers who are caught speeding are issued a ticket, far more than the 48.8 percent average across all traffic stops.

You may also be wondering: Do traffic stops reduce crime? The data is complicated but it points to a no.

Frequently Asked Questions: Your Rights During a Traffic Stop

Now that we’ve covered the top reasons for why an officer will pull you over and some demographic information related to traffic stops, let’s get to your frequently asked questions. They focus on your rights during a police stop and what you should do.

#1 – What does a traffic stop mean?

Traffic stop, also known as being pulled over, means that a police officer is detaining a person to investigate the possibility that the driver has broken a law.

#2 – Does a cop have to tell you why you are pulled over?

A cop does not have to tell you why you have been pulled over. If the cop has reasonable suspicion for pulling you over, the judge may rule in their favor if the case is taken to court.

#3 – What do cops look for when pulling someone over?

Cops can look for numerous things when pulling someone over. Part of what they look for are driving infractions like speeding, changing lanes without signaling, or running through a red light. In other cases, they might pull someone over if a license plate registration has expired, someone appears drunk or drugged (and their driving corresponds to that appearance), or if the car registers as stolen in the police system.

#4 – What should you not do during a traffic stop?

There are certain behaviors people might exhibit if they are pulled over that, if done, might result in a more dangerous situation or additional offenses. Keeping your hands in view is important, as well as not fidgeting or appearing to be searching for something while the cop approaches the car. Arguing and resisting arrest can lead to a more dangerous situation.

#5 – What does a traffic warning mean?

A traffic warning just means that the police officer pulled you over for breaking the law but decided to give you a warning rather than an actual ticket.

#6– Can you walk away from a police officer?

If you are temporarily detained after being pulled over, walking away from that officer might be seen as a sign of defiance, which could lead to more charges or an escalation of that situation. This could cause the police to have reasonable suspicion to react with harsher methods to detain you.

#7 – Can you say, “I don’t answer questions to a cop?”

Yes, you can remain silent while being detained by the police. Although this is part of the United States constitution, it often results in harsher punishments, assuming that you breaking the law just meant getting a ticket. In this situation, a cop might have to take you to the police station or place you under arrest, which are both escalations of the situation.

#8 – Do you have to tell a police officer your name?

Some states in the U.S. have a policy called “stop and identify” which gives police officers the power to ask for your name if they suspect a crime has been committed or will be committed. However, without those motives (suspecting a crime has been committed or will be committed), officers still can’t ask for your name even with those policies.

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Methodology: Traffic Stop Reasons Ranking

The data in this report is from the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Police-Public Contact Survey. The top reasons drivers get pulled over were ordered by their share of all traffic stops in which police provided a reason. Traffic stops with uncategorized reasons were excluded from the final list. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was a main source of information as well for auxiliary statistics.

No matter if you’ve been in an accident or received a ticket, saving money on auto insurance is a big win for everyone. Start by plugging your ZIP code into our free quote tool to see insurance coverages and prices personalized for you.

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