Guest post by Joe Alton MD
In these days of smartphone distractions, you’re seeing more and more people oblivious to their surroundings. In the past, this might get you a bump on the head by walking into a lamp post. In today’s world, however, it could cost you your life.
The NYC vehicular attack that killed 8 and injured a number of others is just the latest in a number of incidents by the deranged, disgruntled, and politically motivated. Yet, being situationally aware could prevent you from becoming a victim of a future vehicular terror event.
Situational awareness involves understanding factors in your immediate vicinity that might represent a threat. I’m not talking about second-hand smoke; I’m talking about serious dangers that you can avoid with rapid action.
Vehicular terrorism is not new, with Israel the scene of many such attacks in past years. It’s becoming more and more common in the West, however, with attacks in NYC, London, Nice, France, Berlin, and elsewhere. A Somali student used his car to run over several people at Ohio State University and then perpetrated a knife attack on those who, ironically, ran over to see if he was injured.
Many similar events have occurred but rarely make the news. Here are just a few of the Western vehicular attacks (from Wikipedia) since 2014:
- 2014 Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu ramming attack, Canada (ramming)
- 2014 Dijon attack, France (ramming people)
- 2014 Nantes attack, France (ramming people)
- 2016 Nice attack, France (ramming people + gunfire)
- 2016 Ohio State University attack, United States (ramming + stabbing)
- 2016 Berlin attack, Germany (shooting truck driver + ramming people)
- 2017 Westminster attack, London, England, United Kingdom (ramming + stabbing; some victims were thrown off Westminster Bridge by the ramming)
- 2017 Stockholm attack, Sweden (ramming people)
- June 2017 London Bridge attack, England, United Kingdom (ramming + stabbing).
- 2017 Finsbury Park attack, London, England, United Kingdom (ramming people)
- June 2017 Champs-Élysées car ramming attack, Paris, France (ramming a police car)
- 2017 Levallois-Perret attack, Levallois-Perret, France (ramming soldiers)
- 2017 Guatemala City, a car rammed into a student protest: 13 injured, one dead. 
- 2017 Venezuelan protests, several cases of vehicle rammings during opposition marches by security forces or government supporters.
- 2017 Times Square car crash
- 2017 Melbourne car attack in Melbourne, Australia in which six people were killed and 36 injured.
- 2017 Barcelona attacks, ramming people.
- 2017 Charlottesville attack, during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States (ramming people)
- 2017 Sandy attack, car-ramming and shooting in Sandy, Utah
- July 2017 Helsinki attack, Finland, ramming people.
- 2017 NYC attack, 8 dead, 12 injured.
Why vehicular terror? Terror attacks are often associated with bombs, but making a bomb requires some expertise to assemble safely. Guns, the other preferred weapon, are difficult to come by in most countries other than the U.S. Owning or renting a vehicle, however, is easy. Trucks and cars can cause mass casualties if wielded as a weapon; obtaining one isn’t an act that evokes suspicion.
Early this year, an article titled “Just Terror Tactics” was published by the English-language ISIS magazine “Rumiyah”. It described which vehicles will cause the most damage and called for attacks on Western crowds. “It is a simple idea and there is not much involved in its preparation,” the article said. “All what is needed is the willingness to give one’s life for Allah.”
The article goes on: “Pick your location and timing carefully. Go for the most crowded locations. Narrower spots are also better because it gives less chance for the people to run away. Avoid locations where other vehicles may intercept you…”
“To achieve maximum carnage, you need to pick up as much speed as you can while still retaining good control of your vehicle in order to maximize your inertia and be able to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
The writer also suggested attackers weld steel blades onto the front of an SUV: “They do not need to be extra sharp because with the speed of the truck at the time of impact, even a blunter edge would slice through bone very easily. You may raise the level of the blades as high as the headlights. That would make the blades strike your targets at the torso level or higher.”
These tactics represent the new blueprint among terrorists for causing mayhem. Few people pay much attention to traffic unless they’re driving a vehicle themselves or crossing the street. The speed at which a vehicle can accelerate and turn into a crowd leaves little reaction time. Therefore, the “success” rate of this type of terror event may surpass even a gunman’s ability to cause deaths and injuries.
I advocate for a constant state of “Yellow Alert” when in public spaces. By that, I mean a calm but vigilant observation of what’s happening around you. Look for anomalies in behavior that might warn you of nefarious intentions. For example, hopping up and down and screaming may be normal at a rock concert, but it’s an anomaly at Starbucks.
This attitude is useful, but it’s difficult to respond quickly enough to avoid an oncoming car or truck. When a vehicle moves erratically or leaves the normal pattern of traffic, it’s an anomaly that requires quick action. Mentally noting routes of escape whenever you’re in public will give you the best chance of escaping. Just as knowing the location of exits in a mall or theatre is good policy, a heightened awareness is now important at any public area near roadways.
For vehicular terrorists, the target will be crowds of people near the street. Their objective is mass casualties, and those pedestrians nearest the curb will bear the brunt of the attack. Consider walking on the fringe of a crowd away from the road to give yourself the most options. In the center, the masses, not your own good judgment, will dictate your movement.
Municipalities can protect their citizens from vehicular terrorism by constructing barriers known as “bollards” which stop vehicles from entering pedestrian areas. These can be seen outside many government buildings and airport terminals. Expanding their use to areas that attract crowds would be an important consideration for the future.
Bollards are not universally favored for protection against vehicular terror. Berlin’s police chief seems to think that they would make little or no difference. He says that bollards would not have prevented the 2016 Berlin attack. Certainly, they would be far from a guarantee of safety, but if bollards in certain crowded areas could prevent just one terror event, wouldn’t it be worth it?
I’m not the only one thinking about how to deal with vehicular terror. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a release warning of vehicular terrorism and how to identify an imminent attack. The release acknowledges the time issues in reacting to such events, but includes the following things to look for:
- Unusual modifications to vehicles, such as frontal reinforcement.
- The purchase or rental of large or heavy-duty vehicles, especially if there is nervousness during the transaction, payment in cash, or lack of familiarity with the vehicle’s operations.
- Commercial motor vehicles or heavy equipment being operated in unusual locations, such as particularly heavy pedestrian areas.
- Attempts to approach areas closed to traffic, such as street festivals or farmers’ markets.
- A vehicle operator’s apparent unfamiliarity with operating a commercial vehicle, such as trouble with gear shifting.
I’ll admit that the likelihood you’ll be in the path of a terrorist using a vehicle, or any other weapon, is very small. Panic isn’t the answer, but these are troubled times; the more situationally aware you are, the safer you’ll be.
Visit the author’s website DoomandBloom.net and but his book The Survival Medicine Handbook: THE essential guide for when medical help is NOT on the way.