Are you an international student who drives in the U.S.? Or are you planning to get your driver license and buy a car soon?

You need to know the laws for interacting with American police officers. Also, you need to know what to do if you get a traffic citation or are in an accident. We’ll explain all three plus the importance of not drinking and driving.

Stopping for Police Vehicles

2As a driver in the U.S., your car may be stopped (or “pulled over”) over by the police one day. Maybe you are driving too fast, breaking a traffic law, or have a car problem like a headlight that’s out. This happens to most American drivers at some point, so do not be scared if a police officer stops you. It’s important to be calm and polite.

To pull you over, a police officer will turn on their car’s flashing blue or blue and red lights, and sometimes a siren. Always stop if this happens to you.

Follow these guidelines if you’re pulled over:

  • More your car to the far right side of the road near the curb. If there isn’t space to stop safely on the side of the road, pull into a parking lot or side street as soon as possible.
  • Park your car and roll down your window so that the officer can talk to you. If it is dark outside, turn on your car’s interior light.
  • Sit in your car while the officer checks your license plate and approaches the car. Do not open your car door or get out of your car unless the officer tells you to.
  • Keep your hands on the steering wheel so that the officer can see them. If you have passengers in your car, ask them so remain calm and quiet.
  • Speak calmly and answer the officer’s questions honestly.
  • If you have a handgun permit and you are carrying a gun in your car, tell the officer. He or she may ask to see the permit and the gun.
  • Show the officer your driver’s license, insurance card, and car registration if asked for them. Do not search your wallet, bag, or car for these until asked for them.
  • Do not argue with the officer if he or she gives you a citation (“ticket”) for a breaking a traffic law. If you believe you are innocent, you can talk to the judge in traffic court.
  • Do not offer the officer money to not give you a citation. This is not acceptable in the U.S.

Also, remember to always have your license, car insurance card, and vehicle registration card with you every time you drive. Driving without a license is a serious offense and will give you a criminal record, even after you pay the required fine. This criminal record could cause a problem if you ever want to apply for another U.S. visa in the future.

Dealing with a Traffic Citation

If you receive a citation for breaking a traffic law, don’t ignore it. You will face a tougher penalty if you do not pay your fine or go to traffic court.

Did you do what the citation says, such as speeding or running a stop sign? You can simply pay the fine to the local court in person, by mail, or online (pay online to Davidson County here).

For some kinds of citations, you may be given a court date. You only have to go to traffic court if you believe that you didn’t do anything wrong. Otherwise, just pay your fine before the court date.

Traffic Accidents

3You must stop immediately if you are in an accident. Pull over to the side of the road if you are blocking traffic. Turn the car off. Call 911 if anyone is hurt. If no one is hurt, call the local police department’s non-emergency number (for Nashville, it’s 615- 862-8600).
Even if no one is hurt, you must call the police. If any cars are damaged, the drivers’ insurance companies will want a police report.

Do not try to move an injured person unless you have first aid training.

Exchange information with the other driver(s): Names, addresses, phone numbers, license plate numbers, and insurance policy numbers. Call your car insurance company as soon as possible to report the accident.

Don’t Drink and Drive

4When you drive, you need to see clearly, stay alert, make decisions quickly, and react quickly. Drinking alcohol affects all of these things. In Tennessee in 2011, drunk driving caused 27% of car accident deaths.

In Tennessee, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration of over .08 percent. (This is the percentage of alcohol in your blood.) How many drinks does this take? It depends on your body weight, how much alcohol you drink, and how quickly you drink it.

It’s also illegal to drive after using marijuana, narcotic drugs, and many other drugs that affect your mind.

If you are caught driving drunk or on drugs, you will be arrested for DUI (driving under influence). Penalties for a DUI may include high fines, jail time, and loss of your driver license. You may also be required to attend DUI safety school, and you must pay for it.

As you can see, DUIs are dangerous and expensive. The best ways to stay safe and avoid a DUI are:

  • Use a “designated driver”, a friend who agrees not to drink alcohol and safely drive everyone else home. Many bars will give free drinks to designated drivers.
  • Use a bustaxi, Uber, or Lyft to get home safely.