(This is a personal protection primer in the making. While it already contains some sound basic guidelines, it may not be entirety comprehensive. If you have additional suggestions to improve someone’s chances of surviving a vehicular attack, you are invited to post your recommendation in the comments section so that it can be integrated into this article.)
Terrorist attacks using vehicles to run down pedestrians in busy locations is a relatively new phenomenon, but one that is becoming increasingly common.
The modus operandi is simple—the terrorist commandeers a vehicle (preferably a truck or heavy SUV), proceeds to an area where crowds gather, and attempts to run down as many pedestrians as possible.
SOME RECENT INCIDENTS
As early as 2006, there was a vehicle ramming attack on students at the University of North Carolina, perpetrated by an Iranian-American terrorist. Nine people were injured, but no one died in the attack. The tactic was repeated in Jerusalem, Israel on September 22, 2008. This incident injured 19 but killed none of the victims.
Perhaps the deadliest instance of vehicle ramming was the one that killed 86 people and injured 434 others in Nice, France on July 14, 2016. A similar attack in Berlin killed 12 people and injured 56 others on December 19 of the same year.
On January 20, 2017 a car was used to fatally run down 6 people (including a 10-year old girl and a 3-month-old baby) and injure over 30 others in the Central Business District of Melbourne, Australia. On March 22, 2017 another such attack took place in London, killing 4 pedestrians and injuring 46 others.
The latest attack of this kind took place on April 7, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. A stolen delivery truck was used to run down 4 people and injure 15 others on one of the city’s busiest streets.
The increase in this type of terrorism is easy to understand. Vehicle ramming requires no lengthly preparation, and uses no specialized equipment. It can easily be performed by a single terrorist who, if he or she is lucky, can even survive the incident and escape scot free.
So how can we avoid falling victim to this growing threat?
BE WARY OF CROWDED LOCATIONS
A homicidal driver bent on doing the greatest possible harm is likely to target the most densely crowded location he or she can find. This includes pedestrian-only shopping streets, ongoing street parties, and even organised tour groups walking on the footpath.
If you find yourself in any sort of crowd, the safest place to be is at its fringe. Not being hemmed in by other people gives you better opportunities to maneuver in case a homicidal vehicle makes its appearance. It will also prevent you from being trampled in the event that people start running in every direction.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SIDEWALK CAFES
Sidewalk cafes make great dining venues. Unfortunately, in most locations, they also expose you to vehicular traffic.
If you like dining al fresco, it’s always safer to choose a spot where parked vehicles protect your table from anything coming from the street. Pick a spot that allows you to monitor cars going by, and figure out the best place to take cover if a wayward vehicle makes its appearance.
When dining in an open square or a plaza, select a location as far from feeder roads as possible, and sit facing vehicular traffic. That way you’ll be able to detect anything coming your way, and your distance from the incoming streets will, hopefully, give you time to take evasive action if an incident starts to develop. Always have a clear idea of where to run if a vehicle comes at you, before settling down to enjoy your meal.
ALWAYS BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS
When out and about in urban areas, be especially attentive to vehicle sounds, and be alert to the slightest sound of panicked cries in your vicinity. They could be your first warning that something nasty is starting to happen, and should give you a good chance of getting away in time.
RESERVE THE USE OF ELECTRONIC DEVICES FOR SAFE LOCATIONS
Any personal security consultant will tell you that walking around in the open with a mobile phone to your ear, or while listening to music through earbuds, is a bad idea. “If I wanted to run down pedestrians,” says one protection specialist, “my first targets would be people with wires trailing out of their ears. They’re likely to be the most clueless about what’s about to happen.”
RECOGNIZE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COVER AND CONCEALMENT
Concealment hides you from your attacker; cover protects you from the assault. It pays to be able to distinguish between the two.
Crouching behind a large A-frame sign on the sidewalk, for example, may keep a homicidal driver from seeing and targeting you, but it won’t prevent a vehicle from running you down. It’s concealment, but it’s no cover at all.
An electric post, on the other hand, may not completely hide you, but it will prevent a car traveling at 40 kilometres an hour from getting to you. This is cover.
You’ll find cover and concealment on any busy street, if you look hard enough. Putting a parked car between you and a homicidal driver provides good cover, as long as you make allowances for the fact that a parked car will move once it’s struck by another vehicle.
A sizeable statue or monument, on the other hand, may very well provide both.
Upward-leading steps can provide cover, unless you happen to be under attack by an SUV. Even then, however, a homicidal driver may opt to stay on level ground to maximize the carnage instead of following people up some steps.
CONSCIOUSLY STAY WITHIN 5 METERS OF COVER
When walking or standing out in the open, do your best to stay within 5 meters of cover—the kind that’s solid enough to stop an oncoming vehicle. Think building walls and structural columns, brick walls, anti-vehicle bollards, or even electric posts.
Depending on the speed at which the vehicle is traveling, your cover may or may not be sufficient to protect you. (Metal or concrete electric posts at least a foot in diameter, for example, can usually stop a car traveling up to 40 kilometres per hour. An anti-vehicle bollard half that diameter, on the other hand, may not.
Large metal dumpsters can provide protection, especially when fully laden. If you’re using one for cover, stay at least 30 feet beyond the metal dumpster. A vehicle impacting it is almost certain to move it, and you don’t want to be in the dumpster’s way when it moves.
Even a concrete flower bed taller than the height of a car’s bumper will help. While an SUV may be capable of mounting such an obstacle, a car whose bumper can’t clear it is not likely to. Trees whose trunks are at least 15 inches in diameter will also afford good protection.
Remember that behind a plate-glass window is the worst place to be standing when a vehicle is headed towards you. You are completely visible to the attacking vehicle’s driver, and the shattering glass can easily double the amount of injuries you may sustain.
STAY IN YOUR CAR
If you witness an incident unfolding while sitting in your vehicle, don’t be tempted to get out of your vehicle and make yourself a target of opportunity!
Put your seatbelt on, start your motor, and pay close attention to what’s happening. Remember that a terrorist in a vehicle will try to run down pedestrians, and is not likely to target people in their cars. Brace for impact and try to drive away if you feel you are in the path of the terrorist’s vehicle.
If my vehicle exceeded the size of what the terrorist was driving, and I believed I could stop it, I would seriously consider driving head-on into it, to stop it from causing more injuries and claiming more innocent lives. The best option here would be to ram the target vehicle head-on, or to target either its front or rear tires. This is more likely to stop the target vehicle from getting underway again, than going for the driver’s compartment itself.
During the Bourke Street attack in Melbourne’s Central Business District on January 20, 2017 a Victoria Police SUV rammed the Holden Commodore used by the homicidal driver, effectively ending the vehicle rampage that killed 6 and injured 20 other pedestrians.
DON’T TRY TO OUTRUN A VEHICLE—GET WITHIN ITS TURNING RADIUS!
If you are unfortunate enough to be on foot, and get caught with a wayward vehicle coming up behind you, don’t panic! Run as fast as you can, but choose a path that takes you out of the vehicle’s way and puts you inside its turning radius.
If you can put yourself one or two meters meters alongside the vehicle’s front door, for example, it becomes impossible for the vehicle to run you over, regardless of the speed at which it is traveling. The vehicle’s steering mechanism simply won’t permit it.
This entails making a dash towards the immediate left or right of the vehicle’s path, then allowing it to pass you by. Once the vehicle passes you, head for cover!
FORGO CROSSING BRIDGES ON FOOT, IF YOU CAN AVOID IT
In the light of the last two London vehicle ramming attacks (22 March 2017 and 03 June 2017), it would appear that the venue of choice for carrying out such attacks is now vehicular bridges with pedestrian walkways.
During the Westminster Bridge attacks, driver-assailant Khalid Masood targeted pedestrians walking and standing on the south lane of the bridge and on Bridge Street, killing 4 pedestrians (4 British nationals and one American) outright and injuring more than 50 other people.
During the most recent incident on London Bridge (Saturday night, 03 June 2017), a van loaded with three terrorists mowed down pedestrians on the bridge’s pavement, before proceeding to disembark and go on a stabbing/slashing spree, armed with machetes. Seven people were killed and about 50 others were injured.
The terrorists who are conducting these vehicle-ramming attacks now seem to have their strategy down pat.
They are now selecting bridges as venues for these attacks, because pedestrian movement on a bridge is highly restricted. On most bridges, people walking across are confined to a strip of pavement between one to three meters wide. They can only move in two directions while walking across—forward (in the direction of vehicle traffic) or backward (facing vehicle traffic).
This makes it easy for a determined attacker driving a vehicle to mow down pedestrians on a bridge. All the driver needs to do is to get his wheels on the footpath and start tallying up casualties. Accelerating to speeds of up to 70 mph is possible on the pedestrian walkway since no their vehicles will be on the footpath.
When you’re crossing a bridge on foot you have almost nowhere to go, except on the roadway (where you may be hit by other vehicles) or over the side railings of the bridge, and into the water (or the ground) below.
That is what makes vehicle-ramming attacks on a bridge so effective.
Remember that the longer the span of the bridge, the more victims a vehicle rammer is likely to claim during an attack. Crossing a long-span bridge on foot exposes you to danger longer, and such crossings should be avoided if at all possible.
Granted that a bridge is the worst place to get caught in a vehicle ramming attack, how do you keep from getting killed if you get caught on a bridge?
1. Always walk facing traffic, and keep a sharp eye on the way vehicles are moving. A vehicle moving faster than all the others, one weaving in and out of traffic, or one attempting to mount the footpath is a definite danger sign.
2. If you spot a vehicle headed towards you on the footpath, avoid the vehicle by moving perpendicular to the direction it is heading. Cars (and especially trucks) have a relatively large turning radius. Putting yourself inside that turning radius guarantees that you can’t possibly be hit by the attacking vehicle.
3. Most bridges will have lamp posts—try to put one between yourself and the attacking vehicle. If the lamp posts are flush with the bridge’s railings, get on top of the railing and hang onto the lamp post. This puts you above the attacking vehicle’s bumper line while making you less of a priority target—a driver wanting to cause as much carnage as possible is not likely to crash the bridge’s railing and risk falling off the bridge.
4. In the absence of lampposts, any barrier that you can interpose between yourself and the attacking vehicle is worth considering. Bollards are good; even concrete plant boxes can slow a vehicle down.
5. A last resort would be to climb and put yourself on the other side of the bridge’s railing. This will entail hanging on for dear life until the danger has passed (usually less than a minute). This is a particularly risky tactic because you can slip and fall into the water below, but it also makes you less of a priority target, since a vehicle would have to smash into the railing (and risk driving off the bridge) before it can actually harm you.
We don’t recommend jumping off a bridge into the water below, since this presents an entirely different set of dangers. Depending on the height of the bridge, the impact on the water may render you unconscious and cause you to drown. The water might be freezing and instantly paralyze you upon entry. And finally, diving into the water fully clothed makes swimming very difficult, even if you do manage to regain your senses after surviving the fall.
If you’re driving on a bridge and spot a vehicle ramming attack in progress, stop your vehicle immediately. Switch on your hazard lights and try to get other vehicles to halt, as well. Blocking traffic gives pedestrians safe space to run to avoid the attack.
BE A GOOD WITNESS
Once you’re out of danger, try and follow the path of the vehicle to its final resting point. Use your mobile phone’s video camera to track its progress if you can. The driver is likely to try and make an escape after causing so much mayhem. If you can provide an accurate description of him, or better yet, a good photograph, you can be of invaluable assistance to law enforcement officials after the fact.
THOUGHTS ON USING A GUN TO STOP A RAMPAGING VEHICLE
It is not very likely that you will be able to use your carry piece to stop the offending vehicle during such incidents.
Vehicle ramming scenarios are going to take place in crowded environments. People are likely to be scampering around in all directions, and the offensive vehicle is likely to be traveling at speeds of up to 80 kilometers per hour.
Viewed head-on, the rampaging vehicle is likely to have its next victim in front of it, and will likely present no possible shot at all. Going past you, it will likely be just a speeding blur. Moving away from you, it is likely to have helpless innocents just beyond it.
Unless you happen to have an elevated vantage point, a solid rest, and a properly scoped rifle, there is very little likelihood of ending such an event using a firearm.
DEFENSIVE USE OF LASERS AND TACTICAL LIGHTS
If you happen to have a laser on your firearm, on the other hand, switching the laser on and training it on the driver’s eyes is a strategy worth considering. The laser should be capable of producing temporary blindness, which might result in the vehicle crashing. At night, using a powerful flashlight to blind the perpetrator can have a very similar effect.
Just be aware of two things:
1. Shining a laser or flashlight in the driver’s eyes and causing the attacking vehicle to crash may actually result in additional casualties, and
2. The tactic quickly identifies you as a choice target, and the attacking vehicle may head straight towards you.
Using this tactic of trying to blind the driver is a decision that will have to be taken in the heat of the moment. Use your best judgement, and execute your move from behind cover if you can, to protect yourself from the attack that may follow.
During the Melbourne incident, the Critical Incident Response Team of the Victoria Police stood down until the rampaging vehicle had been rammed. A police officer then shot the driver, almost at the very instant that the vehicle came to a halt, hitting him in the arm. The shot was necessary to prevent the driver from attempting to reverse out of the crash and continuing the murderous rampage.
The best application of a firearm, therefore, would come after the terrorist vehicle has been brought to a stop. The driver can then be accosted, or neutralized, as necessary to prevent more bloodshed. A gun can be used in a citizen’s arrest type of scenario, to prevent the perpetrator’s escape.
As always, be wary in case he has armed accomplices planted within the crowd.
Unfortunately, it looks as though the number of vehicle rammings is set to increase in the immediate future. To the terrorist, it has proven to be a viable tactic, and one that doesn’t necessarily require the perpetrator to sacrifice his/her life, in the same way that suicide bombers are required to do.
Videos released by ISIL in 2014 actually encourage its sympathizes to carry out such acts of terrorism, and specify the targeting of high-density crowds, with instructions to accelerate to maximum speed before contact, to maximize the carnage.
As always, our best protection is vigilance — keeping an eye peeled and an ear cocked for danger signs whenever we go out into a crowded street. Until measures can be taken to adequately secure pedestrian areas that are likely to become targets from such attacks, we have no other option.