What do cops do when traffic is bad?
March 28, 2006 9:50 PM   Subscribe

If they're not handling accidents, what do highway patrol officers and cops do when there's a traffic jam? I never see them on the road. Are they abandoning their posts?

So, I'm stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Southern California. You know, the kind of traffic jam that appears to have no direct cause (i.e. no accidents). Suddenly it hits me. Where are the cops? Why do you never see cops stuck in traffic like everyone else?

Obviously, highway patrol handles accidents and so forth, so they could be off doing their jobs. But in most cases, traffic is simply caused by too many cars in too few lanes. So where are the cops during rush hour? They're not whipping past me in the breakdown lanes. What's happening here?

The evil part of me thinks that the cops simply pull onto surface streets and wait it out, unless they're specifically called to the scenes of accidents or crimes. Rush hour = time to eat the donuts. The really evil part of me thinks that police shift changes are specifically timed to occur during rush hour, pulling the police even farther away from traffic.

Any police officers in the house? This strange disappearing act seems totally counter-intuitive, since rush hour is the time when the roads are being most heavily used.

What's the deal? Are you guys hiding? Or am I just flat wrong?
posted by frogan to Society & Culture (20 answers total)
I'm not sure what you're getting at...

Are you saying that you understand that some traffic jams happen for no reason, but then wonder why the cops aren't there to smooth things out? What would they do exactly? There's too many cars on the road.

Or are you just saying that you never see cops stuck in traffic like everyone else?
posted by Brian James at 9:55 PM on March 28, 2006

Actually, I usually see them driving up and down the shoulders of the highway pulling over people who are driving on the shoulder.
posted by Loto at 9:56 PM on March 28, 2006

Response by poster: Or are you just saying that you never see cops stuck in traffic like everyone else?

Yes, that's what I'm saying/asking. The vast majority of traffic jams are not caused by accidents. I rarely see cops pass me on the shoulders (and if I do, they're on their way to a nearby accident).

If patrolmen aren't clustered in one spot handling an accident, what are patrolmen doing if they're not, you know, patrolling and therefore getting stuck in the same traffic jam I'm stuck in?

I'm wondering if they're shirking their duties and are simply stepping aside when they feel like it.

It's admittedly an extreme statement, but I'm wondering if there's a tactical reason to not be out patrolling during rush hour.
posted by frogan at 10:09 PM on March 28, 2006

In Phoenix, I see cops stuck in (patrolling, I guess) traffic jams like the rest of us at about the same frequency I see them during normal traffic. Perhaps part of the reason is that in normal traffic you're passing a whole lot of different cars in both directions and are hence more likely to see a cop due to volume, whereas in rush hour freeway traffic your visual field is comprised chiefly of the same few dozen vehicles for a comparatively long while?
posted by moift at 10:18 PM on March 28, 2006

I'd count that as a tactical reason as well, from the cop's POV. The exposure to potential people to pull over is not as diverse, and being in heavy traffic presumably makes one less mobile to respond quickly to more serious calls.
posted by moift at 10:21 PM on March 28, 2006

There's usually a pretty small number of state police/patrolmen for a really large amount of state roads in a given... state. I think the odds of you seeing one, period, are pretty low on any given day.
posted by autojack at 10:22 PM on March 28, 2006

I've seen cops stuck in traffic jams frequently in Chicago. However, it being part of their job to be available for emergency calls, I wouldn't be surprised if they were wise to the predictable traffic jams and knew to avoid them. Since they're everywhere, one cop sitting there ticketing people can notice a traffic jam and let the entire department know to avoid the Dan Ryan Expressway (or whatever).
posted by evariste at 10:29 PM on March 28, 2006

Response by poster: There's usually a pretty small number of state police/patrolmen.

In California, CHiPs are everywhere. Probably the most visible police force. Except in traffic jams ... hmmm ...
posted by frogan at 10:34 PM on March 28, 2006

I imagine that during rush hour, the CHP guys position themselves near where they know accidents often occur--maybe at a particularly tricky merge--and linger near the closest prior onramp. Rather than get trapped in rush hour traffic jam, they sit back and wait for a call to come in. Since cell phones are so common these days, this is probably the best strategy.
posted by Brian James at 10:43 PM on March 28, 2006

Why should the cops be sitting in traffic gumming things up like everyone else? Wouldn't they be equally able to do their duties pulled off on the side waiting on the shoulder or near an on ramp or whatever?

Their job is not to drive on the roads as much as possible, you know!
posted by aubilenon at 11:18 PM on March 28, 2006

Well, first off I'd say that if you knew there was going to be a jam - lets say the 405/ 10 at 5.30 - and you didn't have to be in it because this wasn't your only route home, would you knowingly hit that freeway at that time?

Also, let's face facts here - all those jams that have no direct cause? Nine times out of ten it's rubbernecking, and every time I'm involved in such a jam and I reach the cause - the inevitable fender bender + CHP - I think, "is this it? The entire freeway is jammed because everyone's checking out a cop and a dinged Prius? We're *idiots*!" And if I was a cop, I'd leave the idiots to get on with it and wait for something worthy of my time.
posted by forallmankind at 11:31 PM on March 28, 2006

Also, dontcha think that a traffic jam with no cause is a quite 'safe' place to be? You're just sitting there, there's no robberies or rapes up on the expressway going on...a large portion of the population is sitting there safely. They can go down to the sidestreets or wherever hot spot of crime would be...
posted by toastchee at 4:32 AM on March 29, 2006

Traffic jams at rush hour are a well-known thing anywhere. If you didn't have to be stuck in one, would you want to be? It doesn't seem like it would do the cops any good. If they are stuck in the middle where are they going to go if they are needed?
posted by JJ86 at 5:41 AM on March 29, 2006

I've been in same traffic. What I noticed was CHP officers on those nifty BMW bikes whipping through traffic between the lanes (which is legal, by the way.) I guess they were just running their patrol patterns or something. Keeping motorists from shooting at each other.
posted by TeamBilly at 6:31 AM on March 29, 2006

I've seen police drive down the shoulder in such situations.

And yes, human beings are idiots, hence why we have traffic jams.
posted by Atreides at 6:39 AM on March 29, 2006

Going off from aubilenon's comment, most of the traffic jams I see are concentrated around cops sitting at the side of the road, doing whatever. People cruising happily along at 75mph suddenly feel the need to mash the brake pedal when they see a cop (like it would do them any good), then proceed at 5mph below the speed limit. Causes major slowdowns. I bet the cops know that, and try to stay out of sight to avoid provoking the foot-jerk response and its aftermath.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:57 AM on March 29, 2006

They probably stay off the main routes as much as possible.

Quite a fee people won't even pass a police officer even if he is going well under the speed limit in the slow lane.
In slow moving/stop and go situations, some people freak out when they have to cruise near a police car for more than a block. They pay more attention to the officer than the traffic.

I think it's just better for everyone if the police park and catch up on their paperwork at strategic on-ramps/park-n-ride lots.
posted by whoda at 6:58 AM on March 29, 2006

To add to that, even if a cop isn't responding to an accident and is just sitting on the side of the road keeping an eye out while writing reports ... people are looking at the cop trying to figure out why he's there, and if he's going to look up, spot them, and pull them over for some unspecified reason. So they go slow and are distracted while the cop is there, which is what causes those mystery traffic jams anyway.

And while they're watching the cop, they're not watching the car that they were tailgating and end up rear-ending that car, causing another accident and a bigger traffic jam.

I'm not sure if you noticed it, but CHP has started to turn their lights off or to leave only the barest minimum emergency flashers on when they've got someone pulled over. This is to keep from distracting people and causing more accidents.

So ... what everyeone else probably said about staging of police forces at strategic points, and how you only see a few cars when you're in a traffic jam. I'm also going to add that cops are rarely on donut breaks. They have tons of reports to write for every single traffic stop that they do, and it takes a long time to process all that paperwork. Most cops will spend about 2 to 4 hours out of a 8 to 10 hour shift actually doing police work, and the balance writing reports. (Most of that paperwork, of course, is to defend the police department against allegations of citizens who believe that the police department is shirking their duties.)
posted by SpecialK at 7:08 AM on March 29, 2006

Dang, whoda beat me to all of my points, and said it more concisely!
posted by SpecialK at 7:09 AM on March 29, 2006

whoda and SpecialK have it. I don't really see a reason for police to patrol the freeway itself, especially during rush hour. It's pretty much the worst time to write tickets or cite violations because they'll create enough of a scene to cause more accidents and compound the problem. Their main job becomes to respond to accidents or highway incidents that can occur so you would be likely to see them just off of the highway where they can easily make a decision if necessary. How does sitting in the middle of gridlocked traffic allow them to do any part of their job?
posted by mikeh at 11:41 AM on March 29, 2006

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