6 don’ts of directing traffic

Frankly, I’m frequently disappointed by the traffic directing I observe as a motorist


As a survivor of two vehicle impacts as a pedestrian, I can testify that even low-speed interactions between the human body and 3,000 pounds of automobile will leave a mark.

The statistics of roadside deaths of police officers are sobering, but there are times when officers need to be in the line of traffic to ensure that the motoring public safely passes by a hazard. The danger and liability are high with too little training for the task. I wrote a Police1 classic article on the topic a dozen years ago and there have been additional articles on roadside safety including a video reminder from Gordan Graham.

Frankly, I’m frequently disappointed by the traffic directing by police I observe as a motorist. I also remember the resistance I got as a police supervisor reminding my officers of some principles I believe essential for safe and efficient traffic control. Here are some things I want to throw a stop sign up for:

You must wear that reflective vest, even in daylight.
You must wear that reflective vest, even in daylight. (Getty Images)

1. Stop directing traffic that doesn’t need to be directed

Rule #1 is to leave well enough alone. Some congestion and slowness is tolerable when things go askew, and the benefit to risk ratio needs to be considered before stepping into traffic. When a traffic light goes out, there are laws that create a default traffic flow (whether the motorists remember that or not), and it doesn’t automatically create the need for an officer to take control.

Rule #2 is to let passive control do most of the work for you. Cones, barriers, vehicles, lights and other devices can warn and funnel traffic into more orderly patterns and speeds. Agencies should have standard practices and working agreements with other responder agencies for standard placement of equipment for working crash scenes and traffic disruptions.

2. Stop being the lone ranger

If you are working with any other officers, civilian volunteers, or emergency responders, you must communicate. Motorists will be confused enough with the disruption of normal traffic without getting contradicting signals and instructions from authority figures.

3. Stop being invisible

No matter how big that shield or star is, it isn’t visible enough to oncoming traffic. Your dark uniform is much better suited for responding to burglary calls than it is for directing traffic. Even in daylight, drivers may not see you as clearly as you think and may not even recognize you as a police officer, especially if there are multiple personnel attached to the event. Bottom line is that you must wear that reflective vest. Keep that traffic baton lighted.

Manage your vehicle's lights so that you don’t blind drivers and don’t get swallowed up in headlights and spotlights. Wear those white or reflective gloves. Be very clear with your hand and flashlight directions. Make yourself big, with big motions. None of this index finger circling with the flick of the wrist. Big. Big. Big.

4. Stop thinking drivers will make good decisions

It isn’t that drivers are stupid, but disruptions in the normal flow of traffic does fire some panic neurons in the brain. And that’s for the drivers that are not texting, under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, sleepy, or balancing hot coffee on their laps. For first responders, the sights and sounds of flashing lights and blaring radio traffic are sounds that are normal and even comforting. For drivers, most of whom are driving routes on autopilot out of habit, any change is unnerving and will slow response time. Officers simply cannot assume that drivers will use common sense, slow down, and focus on what is most important – you. 

5. Stop ignoring physics and physiology

The ability of a driver to observe their surroundings and interpret them accurately is diminished by speed and environmental factors. Emergency personnel attempting to direct traffic or even operate near traffic must recognize that reaction time and frequently limited visibility for drivers can create a narrow margin of error in avoiding crashes where normal traffic patterns have been disturbed. Being highly visible and distinct in the environment is critical in giving drivers as much advance notice as possible for good decision making.

6. Stop taking it personally

When drivers get confused or don’t want to comply with your directions it’s likely that they simply don’t understand the whole situation. Having a frustrated and angry police officer doesn’t get traffic moving any better than remaining professional and calm, not to mention the damage to public confidence and community relations. It can be a confusing time for everyone. Your job is to keep things as simple as possible and not add to the confusion.  

What traffic management techniques work for you? Email your tips to editor@police1.com.

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