Lawmakers nationwide are considering legislation requiring drivers — especially students — be taught what to do during a traffic stop as part of driver’s education courses in an effort to put the brakes on deadly encounters between motorists and law enforcement officers.

 

Florida as yet hasn’t followed the trend involving at least seven states including Illinois, which is viewed as a potential nationwide model for the mandated instruction.

However, some Duval County law enforcement officials, school leaders and community activists favor requiring driver’s education courses teach proper traffic stop behavior. The state’s driver’s license handbook offers basic guidelines for how motorists should behave if stopped by law enforcement.

Sgt. Dylan Bryan, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, includes information about proper traffic stop behavior when he talks to driver’s education students in Duval County.

“When it comes to personal safety, I think it’s important not only for the officer, obviously, but also for the person who’s getting stopped,” Bryan said. The Highway Patrol has distributed such information to the public via media outlooks. Formal instruction in driver’s education courses would enhance such efforts, he said.

“I talk about not only traffic safety, distracted driving and also touch on the subject matter of traffic stops,” said Bryan, who’s been providing that information to students for about the past four years.

“The kids react very well to the information. … It opens up a lot of conversation. So they are very active and responsive to that type of information,” Bryan said. Such information would benefit drivers of any age group but especially young motorists, he said.

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he favors including such instruction in the district driver’s education curriculum.

“…However, there would need to be appropriate training for instructors to yield the impact that the legislation would hope to create,” Vitti said.

The 2017 Florida Driver License Handbook offers these guidelines: Safely pull off immediately to the extreme right, and clear of traffic.

At night, reduce your headlights to parking lights and turn on your interior light.

Stay in the driver’s seat. Do not get out of the vehicle unless asked to do so. Keep your hands visible. Sit calmly and follow the officer’s instructions.

Be prepared to show your driver license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance when asked.

Since 2003, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has distributed a free public education brochure including information about what to do during a traffic stop, said Lauri-Ellen Smith, senior public affairs/public relations executive for the agency.

“Last year it was expanded to include advice about all police encounters, not just traffic stops. The information is used in public presentations by JSO personnel, and officers do discuss these points when talking to groups of young people and citizens,” Smith said.

The Sheriff’s Office “certainly would recommend the contents in this educational brochure, should anyone speaking or teaching on the subject of how to handle encounters with the police be interested,” Smith said of the brochure available at the agency’s website, jaxsheriff.org.

“It can be used by anyone who wants to communicate with folks about the rules for an encounter with police. That could include a driver’s education class or any other ‘teachable’ moment where someone is discussing why officers stop people and what they can expect, and recommendations,” Smith said.

Illinois last year enacted a law requiring proper traffic stop behavior information be taught in all driver’s education courses. The 2017 Illinois Rules of the Road provides detailed guidelines for what to do. It also states that “a driver should be treated with dignity and respect by law enforcement officers.” In addition, it outlines what a driver should do if he/she believes an officer acted inappropriately during a traffic stop.

“The goal here is to reduce what could be a tense situation that can be very stressful on both sides,” said Dave Druker, with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees licensing 2.2 million new and veteran drivers annually.

The overall message, Druker said, is use “a common-sense approach” and don’t be confrontational.

Among the first in the nation, the Illinois guidelines urge drivers to keep both hands clearly in sight on the steering wheel “until the officer instructs them otherwise.” The goal is to prevent sudden movements that police might misinterpret as a threat.

The Texas Driver Handbook, taught during driver’s education courses, offers some suggestions for how to behave during a traffic stop.

Allen Robinson, chief executive officer of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, which creates programs in 35 states, said the mandates won’t prevent all problems, but they should help teenagers avoid bad decisions.

“Anything that keeps the rancor and stupidness from going on inside of a car when there is a minor traffic violation, we’re all for,” Robinson said.

A proposed North Carolina law requires driver’s education instruction describe “appropriate interactions with law enforcement officers” during traffic stops, with the procedures published in the state’s driver’s license handbook. In Virginia, a similar bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. Other states considering such measures include Mississippi, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Unless Florida law mandates such instruction, it will remain up to individual law enforcement agencies to provide information to the public. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is among several statewide that have taken that initiative, according to the Florida Sheriffs Association.

“It really hasn’t been an issue the sheriffs have talked about,” said Matt Dunagan, deputy executive director of operations for the Sheriffs Association. The Florida Legislature is already in session, and the filing deadline for bills has passed, but it’s possible such a measure might come up in next year’s session, he said.

Teaching drivers how to behave during traffic stops would be beneficial in Duval County. But law enforcement also needs instruction and accountability regarding how to treat motorists, said Ben Frazier, a spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“It seems to me to be both a long-term and short-term answer to the issue of police contact with citizens,” Frazier said.

This report contains information from Associated Press.

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Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075