Advantages of the passenger-side approach
By Brandon Elliott

Share this article:  

It's hard to believe in this day and age that a lot of guys and gals out on the street are still using the driver-side approach on a traffic stop. When I first got on the job, it was a hot topic. The old-school road officer wouldn't even think about changing.


Which side do you approach at traffic stops?
  • 1. Driver
  • 2. Passenger

The biggest gripe I heard, among a myriad of other excuses, was "I can't smell alcohol if I approach from the passenger side." Of course, those officers were also not bothered to even try it. Change is something cops don't take to well. When things change, we get uncomfortable; and when cops become uncomfortable, we become grouchy. This makes progressive training and review of tactics very difficult for some agencies.

On a typical traffic stop, approaching a vehicle from the passenger side and conducting the stop from that side is the safer choice in many ways. The officer isn't letting himself be exposed to oncoming traffic. All you have to do is watch the video of Lt. John Lambert of the Brooklyn Heights, Ohio, police department to understand this:

Drivers can't help but satisfy their curiosity while you are on a traffic stop. They like to look at your pretty lights, take their eyes and mind off driving and create a hazardous situation. If you are on the passenger side, you can be in a position to get out of the way in a hurry if you need to, and you have the advantage of keeping a quick eye on the oncoming traffic.

Not only do you have an advantage on traffic, but you also have an advantage on the occupants. You have the ability to surprise them, as most people do not expect you to show up there. I can't tell you how many times I've made the driver and passengers of the vehicle jump out of their seat. This is very useful when operators or passengers are trying to conceal contraband or guns.

Most importantly, you can see them before they can see you, and that is a major tactical advantage. Approaching from the passenger side provides you the ability to have a more clear view of the operator and the passenger's hands. This is imperative because "hands kill." You are at a better tactical position to return fire, and you can retreat much faster to cover.

My outlook on traffic stops is simple. I want to give myself every advantage over the person or persons inside that vehicle to protect myself. I also don't like facing my back to traffic and exposing body to not-so-attentive drivers. If you're not using the passenger-side approach, I suggest you start. Even if you have been making that same traffic stop for 20 years, it only takes that one time for it go wrong.

Brandon Elliott is a 10-year officer in a busy East Coast resort police department. Brandon has experience in investigations, counter-narcotics, patrol and training. He holds a degree in criminal justice, as well as certifications as a police instructor and field training officer. Brandon is currently the head of his organization's reserve officer program and serves his organization as an FTO.