Why do policemen touch a tail light when they pull you over?

Whether or not you have ever been pulled over in your vehicle by a police officer, you have probably wondered about this age-old strategy: policemen touching tail lights when they pull you over. This occurs when a police officer gets out of his or her vehicle and approaches yours, but rather than heading straight to your window, the policeman will touch your tail light first. Rest assured this practice is completely legal and common, dating back decades – at first being implemented to mitigate the risk that police officers are often exposed to when practicing traffic law. So why do cops touch tail lights, exactly?

Reason 1: To Startle the Driver

Inevitably, police officers are going to run into unsafe situations when they pull people over. Sometimes drivers will have illegal substances or prohibited items in their cars like guns, ammunition, or drugs. Naturally, if the driver does have something illegal in the vehicle, he or she will want to hide it before the officer approaches the window.

So, one of the reasons why cops touch tail lights is to startle the person inside. The driver is likely not expecting the noise of the tap – which typically causes him or her to stop for a moment, giving the police officer additional time to witness what the driver is trying to hide (if there is anything).

The continuous practice of this surprise tactic has proven to increase the arrest of intoxicated drivers, sellers of prohibited substances, people found in possession of unlicensed firearms, and other road-related offenses.

However, the practice of touching the tail light of vehicles can put our police officers in a risky situation. This is because this practice exposes the police officer’s position making him or her susceptible to attack.

Reason 2: To Leave Evidence

Originally, another reason why cops touch tail lights was to leave their fingerprints on the vehicle. In case the officer found himself in a dangerous situation while pulling over the subject vehicle, fingerprint evidence would prove that he or she was present at the scene. The fingerprints would only be utilized if the interaction between the driver and the cop led to a criminal investigation.

However, this isn’t always a sure-fire way to help an investigation some since the fingerprints can be smudged or tampered with.

Do Police Officers still Touch Tail Lights When They Pull You Over?

Due to the rampant crimes that happen on the road, officers are exposed to greater danger than in the past. In lieu of this practice, our law enforcers, instead, have adopted new technology in implementing traffic rules. Now, there are security cameras installed on almost every corner of the road, and it’s standard for all cops to have dash or body cams recording live video of every interaction that happens, eliminating the original reason tail tapping was ever implemented.

If you get pulled over and the officer still touches your tail light, it’s likely out of habit rather than necessity.


To learn more about traffic law, check out what happens when you get pulled over without a driver’s license.

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