The secrets & confessions of a traffic cop

From how to avoid getting pulled over to speeding, we ask all the questions you always wanted to ask a traffic policeman...

Introducing our tame traffic cop

Police car

Shaun Cronin served in Dorset Police for 30 years. For a decade of that time, he served as a police officer and for 20 years he served in the Traffic and Operations Division in cars and on motorcycles.

Following his retirement in 2016, he joined IAM Road Smart as an instructor and regional manager. He recently sat down with What Car? to tell us about his life as a traffic policeman – how do you avoid getting pulled over? How do you avoid crashing? What are his experiences policing our roads? This feature has all the answers, and plenty more. Please note that photos used are for illustration only.

What qualities does an effective traffic officer need?

Believe it or not, a keen sense of fair play! Not everyone deserves a ticket and no traffic officer takes pleasure in booking someone. Many drivers respond well to a few words of sensible advice. Only a few need a little more persuading…

So can I avoid getting a ticket?

Driver pulled over by policeman

The thing is, every police officer has discretion. For example, I might have stopped a driver with a defective light bulb, but if they were genuinely surprised to find it was blown, I’d have been the first to change it for them.

What makes an officer single out someone for a ticket or a talking to?

Car pulled over by policeman

I was fortunate. I enjoy and am interested in cars and bikes (I owned MGs and helped my mate restore a Sunbeam Tiger and a Frogeye Sprite). As a result, I quickly developed a ‘nose’ for a bad car and when to pull someone over.

You were still targeted to pull over so many cars, though, weren’t you?

It’s a myth that police officers have a target. You’re not there to tick a box.

As a traffic officer, what annoyed you most about drivers?

Mobile phone at the wheel

Talking on their phone, whether holding it or hands free, but the worst was drivers texting. You soon learned to spot them, even when they had it low down in their lap. Their body language would give it away.

We’d book them for not being in proper control. I was pleased when using a handheld phone while driving became an offence attracting a penalty of six points and a £200 fine. It should be as socially unacceptable as drink driving is now.

What was the single factor at the root of most accidents you attended?

Police at accident

Drivers arriving at a situation far too quickly – in other words, their speed on approach. They’d say, “The other car just suddenly pulled out.” The truth was, it was always there to be seen if only they’d been going slower and had looked.

What other mistakes did you witness drivers making?

Overtaking a truck

You’d see a driver itching to get past a slower truck, for example, but he’d be right on their tail – what we called the ‘jock strap’ position. He couldn't see around the truck for a clear overtake so would waste the opportunity or, worse, move out and risk a collision.

What’s your best advice for drivers?

Cars on a motorway

Give yourself time and space, and share the road equitably. How many times do you see drivers close up where two roads merge, to stop someone getting in? Instead, be polite, be friendly and let them in.

Also, where it’s safe and you have a clear view, open up the road by relaxing your lane discipline and positioning the car so you have an even better view and can straighten out corners.

Concentration and good observation make you a safer and more efficient driver. And remember it’s inappropriate speed that kills, not speed alone. 

Are cars at fault, too?

Wrecked car

Way back when, you could probably say many crashes were caused by defective vehicles, but not anymore. Cars and roads infrastructure are getting better but drivers aren’t. The number of road deaths is static.

People drive too fast and too close. They should learn to value space, which gives you time to observe and react. If there was a large spike in the centre of the steering wheel, that would soon change drivers’ attitude to speeding.

What was the most serious incident you attended?

Police car

It wasn’t a driving offence but a woman who, as she left a pub, pushed the pushchair containing her baby into the path of a car. I have an abiding memory of a single child’s bootee in the middle of the road where it had to stay while we conducted our investigation. I’ve attended thousands of crashes and incidents but those involving children stay with you forever.

Apart from the spike, what can be done about bad driving?

Learner driver

I’m concerned we’re teaching people simply to pass a 45-minute driving test. I would start youngsters driving at 16 with the proviso being they can’t have a full licence until they’re at least 17.

During that one-year gap they’d undergo courses in various aspects of driving. I’m a fan of this type of graduated driving licence, such as they have in Australia and some US states.

What do you think of the reduction in the numbers of traffic police? There has been a 24% fall since 2012

Police car & speed camera sign

One of the easiest areas of policing to cut is Traffic. True, speed cameras have filled some of the gaps in terms of speeding and road tax offences but I believe nothing can replace the interaction of a police officer with a driver. Remember, we police by consent in this country, and every encounter is an opportunity to reinforce that agreement.

What do you think of the new generation of speed limiters due to become law in 2022 that will automatically restrict a car’s speed to the prevailing limit?

Speed limit sign & camera

50% of casualties will survive being hit by a car travelling at 30mph but none will survive being hit by one travelling at 40mph, so anything such as a speed limiter that slows cars down to the prevailing limit has to be good.

I accept the majority of drivers break the speed limit accidentally. Often without them realising, their speed creeps up. I saw it all the time as a traffic officer. It’s no excuse, though. They still hit pedestrians and other road users with the same consequences as those who speed deliberately.

How do you suggest drivers get their thrills in a world of speed limiters?

Ford Fiesta ST on winding road

Book an experience day on a track or alternatively, get out a good road map and look for some great corners! There are few feelings as good as entering an open corner with a clear view, at the right speed and in the right gear, and accelerating out the other side.

Many thanks Shaun

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