Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, July 17, 2000

Safety tips for women traveling alone

By Gail Lipe

A woman is traveling alone at night and is pulled over in a rural area by an unmarked police car. The officer is not wearing a uniform and immediately asks her to step out of the car.

What if the officer is not really an officer? Should the woman immediately get out of the car?

Safety for women traveling alone can be a concern. Maintaining caution is important, according to McLeod County Sheriff Wayne Vinkemeier.

Generally people are stopped by a uniformed officer in a marked police car, said Vinkemeier. He said a detective in an unmarked car usually stops vehicles under special circumstances, like if the vehicle is reported stolen or the officer suspects the driver is driving drunk.

He said when someone is stopped by an officer, the officer will usually keep the driver in the car. He said accidents are often caused by people slowing down to see what is going on. Keeping the driver in the car is for everyone's safety.

Most of the time the officer will not ask the driver to get out of the car, unless there are warrants out for the driver or the officer suspects the driver has been drinking.

Vinkemeier said he can only speak for the sheriff's department, but most officers are sensitive to women driving alone, especially at night. He said they have to take that into consideration.

He recommended pulling over and staying in the car with the doors locked. When the officer approaches the car, roll the window down just enough to communicate with the officer until it is clear the officer is who he says he is.

Asking the officer to identify himself and looking at the officer's identification card and badge is appropriate, he said.

"If you suspect the person is not an officer, I would not even give him the driver's license," said Vinkemeier. He said hold it up to the window so the person can see it through the glass.

"When in doubt, protect yourself from potential harm," said Vinkemeier. "The officer will understand. Somehow it usually gets worked out."

A cell phone also is a useful tool. "Don't be afraid to verify the officer by phone," said Vinkemeier.

Usually an officer calls into dispatch when he stops a vehicle letting dispatch know the location. Calling the dispatch center to confirm that the officer asking for the driver's license is on duty is a good idea, he said.

"If there is reason to believe he is not an officer, keep the windows up, honk the horn and drive away," said Vinkemeier. "Then report it immediately, with the license plate number of the car if possible."

There are other things for women traveling alone to do to keep themselves safe. A big one is keeping the vehicle well maintained.

Vinkemeier said keep the gas tank above one-fourth of a tank, make sure the tires are good so there is not a blown tire and keep a cell phone in the car.

"If there is a problem, pull to the side of the road and put the hood up to indicate there is a problem," said Vinkemeier. "Then get back in the car and lock the doors. Don't walk, because you never know who will pick you up."

He also suggested purchasing a survival kit that contains a sign you can put in the window asking for someone to call for help.

"If you're not comfortable getting out when someone stops to help, ask them to call the police," he said.

Vinkemeier said he would not advise having weapons in the car. He said they can be turned on the driver.

He said it is always good to let someone know when leaving and what the destination is so if the car breaks down people will be aware of the time delay, and may be able to help.


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