Pull over!

August 10, 2012, Friday/ 16:24:00/ ELLE LOFTIS

“License and registration please,” the police officer demanded. I had never been pulled over in Turkey before and felt a little relieved that the procedure seemed the same. Back in America when I took my required driver’s education classes to get my driver’s license, we spent a lot of time talking about what to do when pulled over.

It’s customary for a police car to get behind you and turn on their flashing lights and possibly sound the siren to indicate you need to pull over to the right side of the road. We then were taught and even rehearsed the way to properly sit while waiting for the officer to approach your car window. We had to keep our heads back against the headrest, sitting up straight, with both hands placed (or in my case, gripping) the steering wheel in the 10 and 2 o’clock position.

The officer usually approaches after an interminable interval, after running your license plate number through the system. Those seconds pass like hours, as you wonder what it is you will be ticketed for. When he or she finally approaches your window, their hand will generally be hovering near their gun. While I know it is necessary, it always made me more afraid. You never move until the officer asks for your license and registration, and they will stand tensely by, while you hunt through your purse and glove compartment. Then they will either tell you what you did wrong, or just take your information and come back with the ticket for the offense. I usually don’t talk. Mostly because I am probably guilty of the offense, and there is no use arguing. Sometimes this has got me out of tickets, as the officers appreciate the politeness but that isn’t standard.

Here in Turkey I have been driving for about five years now. Can and I share the car, and are happy to be a one-car family. When I first started driving in İstanbul we faced a quandary about how and if I should get a Turkish driver’s license. At the time I was not married, and was not a Turkish citizen. We were advised to wait until after the wedding before starting the process. I drove on my valid US driver’s license, but did not like that solution. As an interim while we waded through bureaucracy, I opted to get an International Driver’s License. I obtained this back in the US at my local AAA office. Turkey is on the list of countries that accepts it. I went into the office and paid $25 ($15 if you bring your own passport-sized photo) to get the license, which is a small booklet. You need a valid US driver’s license to obtain it, and it is good for exactly one year. While we muddled through all of the paperwork, this was our temporary solution. We never tested it out until I got pulled over for the first time.

In America, police can only pull you over for an offense you have committed. In İstanbul, the police set up checkpoints and wave over cars at random. They are looking to see if your car has had its yearly tune up (muayene), which is strictly enforced in Turkey. Checkpoints are also set up (usually at night) to check random drivers’ alcohol levels by using a breathalyzer test. The legal level is quite low, and carries a steep penalty. I usually do not drive in Turkey if I plan on having even one drink. While I have seen people driving down the wrong side of the road in front of police, speeding, or other reckless behavior, I have never seen them penalized for it. The most common way of getting pulled over is getting “waved over” from a checkpoint at the side of the road, which was the case with me on a late Sunday afternoon. No sirens or drama.

When the officer came to my window, I was sitting in the same stance as when I get pulled over in the US. The Turkish officer did not have his hand over his gun, but eyed me warily once he saw I was a foreigner. Once he realized I knew Turkish, he seemed immensely relieved. I first handed him the car’s registration booklet, as well as the insurance documents from our glove compartment. Then, I gave him my US license. Next, I fished out my International Driver’s License, which has to be shown with my US passport and my Turkish residence permit. As I kept giving the officer my stacks of booklets stating my identity, my length of time in Turkey and my permission to drive, he looked overwhelmed. What was he to do with all of this paperwork? Also in my purse were two extra papers in case they were needed. The first was a copy of my marriage certificate, since my official documents show my maiden name only. The other was a paper extending my US driver’s license until January, when I will be back in the US to renew it in person. I was hoping that the officer would not remember that in the US we write our numeric dates in month/day/year format rather than the European standard day/month/year. I had all of the correct paperwork, but felt sorry for the library I had just handed the very young officer.

So, we just sat there for a minute. I could see he really didn’t want to sort through all of this for just a random check. Half-heartedly he flipped through the registration booklet, noticing that we were a few days past due on getting the car’s tune up and emissions test. For this, you need to take your car to a government certified mechanic to have them check and give the necessary paperwork to show that your car meets the standard. Like many things in Turkey, this can be a multi-stepped process. We had taken the car to our dealership for the tune-up on Friday, and had the appointment for the official check on Monday. I had the unfortunate luck of being stopped in that short interim. Meekly, I rifled through the glove compartment again to produce the receipt showing the recent tune-up. All that was missing was the stamp we hoped to get the next day. At this, the officer lost it and just started laughing. “I have absolutely no idea what to do with all of this paperwork,” he said. “Please, just go, get the standard check-up completed. Just take all of this stuff back!”

At this point I was laughing, too. Life is good when you know you aren’t going to get fined. The next day Can got the check-up completed, and the correct documents stamped and filed, just one week late. As for my license, we have to once again wait on that until I renew my license back in the US. My first run-in with the cops was not as bad as I feared, and my mountain of paperwork seemed acceptable. Still, I will breathe easier when I have just one document, my Turkish driver’s license, to hand over. I will be able to get a smaller purse by then.

*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.