Say you’re driving down a school or construction zone with “reduce speed” sign ahead. Before you know it, there’s a state trooper right behind you with red and blue lights flashing. You put your blinker on and slowly come to a stop at which point, the trooper gets out and starts approaching your car. As your heart rate goes up and you are watching him come towards you, you hear a quick tap on the back of your car. The officer touches your tail light and then proceeds to come to your window and greets you. Police officers will often briefly tap your car’s tail light before approaching the window which is a common cop practice. So why do they do that? Does it have a purpose?
This routine maneuver serves as a sort of bread crumb.
Although it might seem weird, the practice of tapping the tail light dates back decades before cameras became common in patrol cars. Before cameras, officers sort of had to leave bread crumbs to prove that they had approached that particular vehicle and tapping the taillight was an inconspicuous method. According to The Law Dictionary, the simple tap on the tail light acted as evidence of the encounter in case something were to happen to the officer during the traffic stop.
The interaction with the driver could be traced back to the fingerprints left on the vehicle.
Leaving a thumbprint on the brake light is an old-school way to tag a car with a fingerprint, so it can be identified conclusively as the vehicle involved in a stop. The tap also stops people from moving around and doing things since the general rule is that as an officer approaches you, you should sit with both hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them.
Despite all of that new technology such as dash cams and body cams, you would still see a few officers perform the “old-school” technique. It is however less important now that video is ubiquitous, but officers are still trained to do it.
Experts say that the tapping technique should be completely avoided since it poses several risks to the responding officer.
Some experts are recommending that officers stop tapping the lights at all costs. According to them, if a person who was just pulled over is someone who is wanted and they have no intention of giving up easily, by tapping the back of the car, the officer is giving away his position; making them more vulnerable. It also serves as an unnecessary distraction and the risks of this strategy are thought to outweigh the benefits. However, next time you get stopped and an officer happens to tap the back of your car, don’t be nervous. It’s just that some habits are just hard to get rid of.