Tips To Avoid Becoming A Carjacking Victim

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One downside to the increased availability and effectiveness of auto-theft prevention devices like alarms, tracking sensors and kill-switches has been an increase in the frequency of carjacking.  An already violent crime, carjackings increasingly are leading to hostage and kidnapping scenarios that put the victims at even greater risk. In this article, we briefly explore the nature of carjacking and propose some means to reduce the potential of becoming a victim. 

Carjacking Defined

In its most common definition, carjacking is the act of “stealing a car forcibly while the owner is present,” or the automotive equivalent of armed robbery. The theft itself may take place with the driver outside the vehicle or behind the steering wheel and the forcible coercion may range from verbal threats to brandishing a weapon to physical assault. The only common denominator and primary differentiator from other forms of armed robbery is that the vehicle is taken during the crime.

 Common Carjacking Scenarios

The two most frequent scenarios for carjackings to occur are at stop lights and at gas stations.

In the former scenario one or more assailants approach the vehicle and coerce the driver into exiting the vehicle, at which time the assailant(s) slip behind the wheel and drive off.  The speed with which this can occur – and the violence of the coercion – can be staggering. In some cases the driver is bodily pulled from behind the wheel and thrown on the ground and the vehicle gone before they even realize what is happening.

In the latter scenario, one or more assailants approach while the driver enters or exits the vehicle, or while they are at the pump fueling the vehicle. Coercion is applied to secure the keys, the assailant(s) enter the vehicle and drive off. In many cases this type of carjacking occurs within sight of other customers and gas station employees.

However, these are only two of an almost infinite number of potential carjacking scenarios.  Some interesting variations that have occurred recently include:

  • Multiple assailants approaching the scene of a minor accident and stealing both cars even as the drivers waited for the police to respond to the accident
  • An assailant approaching a driver in a mall parking lot as she placed her purchases in the trunk, striking her and throwing her to the ground, removing the keys from the trunk lock and driving off with the car.
  • Assailants approaching a group of people sitting on a front porch, demanding keys the cars parked in the driveway at gunpoint and driving off with the cars.

There are no limits to criminals’ creativity (or brutality) when it comes to carjacking.

Ways to Avoid Carjacking

Unfortunately, the only way to avoid carjacking completely is never to own, drive or ride in a vehicle. (There has been at least one instance of a taxi being carjacked and the passengers taken hostage.)  However, there are some common-sense steps drivers can take to reduce their potential to become a victim:

  • Whenever possible, keep your vehicle parked in a secure and well-lit location. Where possible, maintain line-of-sight between an entrance or exit and your car.
  • When approaching your vehicle, be conscious of what is going on around you. Look for anyone or anything out of the ordinary and, if in doubt, don’t approach your vehicle. Wait in a secure location or summon help.
  • Approach your vehicle with keys in hand and as few additional encumbrances (packages, shopping bags, etc.) as possible. Use remote unlocking or door-opening devices if your vehicle is equipped with them to minimize the amount of time spent unlocking your vehicle and preparing to enter.
  • Always enter your vehicle as quickly as possible and immediately lock the doors.  While many cars will automatically lock the doors upon ignition or the car being put into gear, carjackers know this and may strike before auto-locking is engaged.
  •  Drive with the windows up and the doors locked.  The vehicle itself is a barrier between you and a potential attacker and may be enough to dissuade some potential attackers.
  • Keep your vehicle in motion as much as possible. Minimize time at intersections or in parking lots. Slowing down while approaching a stop light often can minimize your time spent at idle.
  • When possible drive in the center lane (away from foot traffic) and leave yourself enough room to turn into the left lane or the lanes used by oncoming traffic when stopped.
  • Remember that unless instructed to do so by a law enforcement officer (and you always can call 911 if you are concerned about impersonators) you are never required to exit your vehicle, even in the case of a traffic accident. You can exchange drivers license and insurance information with another driver by holding it up against a closed window so they can see it.
  • Avoid driving in high-risk or unfamiliar areas, at off-peak hours and in darkness.  Avoid activities that take you outside your vehicle (stopping for gas, for example) in such places and at such times.

Reacting to a Carjacking

As with any assault, there are four basic responses one can make – fight, posture, flee or capitulate.  In the context of a carjacking, these often mean:

  • Fight: Use some manner of force to disable or dissuade the carjacker, for example, utilizing a personal defense device on the carjacker. This option is contingent upon having such a device available and can be complicated if you are in your vehicle and less able to access a device (for example, pepper spray in a glove box or a legally-carried firearm in a belt holster).  When considering how to react to a potential carjacking in the future, consider alternate placement of defensive devices on your person or in the vehicle.  Consider also that the vehicle itself, in a life-or-death situation, may be a defensive device itself.
  • Posture: Find some way to disrupt the attack and potentially drive off the attacker.  In a carjacking, this could be to hit the horn or activate an audible alarm to attract attention. Remember, however, that activating a car alarm also often disables the motor or steering, which may hamper attempts to escape if the posturing does not drive off the attacker.
  • Flee: Leave the scene, whether in the vehicle itself or on foot after existing the vehicle. Many victims forget in the panic of an assault that they often have the option of driving away. Whether in the car or on foot, after fleeing a carjacking immediately proceed to the nearest safe location (well-lit and busy gas stations or retail stores often are good options) and call for help. If you flee in your car and feel the carjackers are following you, call for help immediately and drive to the nearest police or fire station.
  • Capitulate: Comply with the carjackers’ demands.  If you choose to capitulate, don’t reach for your purse or valuables. Leave everything behind if forced from the car. Unless the attacker instructs you otherwise, put as much distance between you and the carjacker as possible. Please note, however, that capitulation can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and may prompt escalation of the carjacking into kidnapping or other violent crime.  Be prepared to flee.

No one of these responses always will be the best one and, in practice, your response may be a combination of several of these (for example, “posture and then flee if the carjacker escalates the threat of violence”).  Many factors will have bearing on your individual plan to respond to a carjacking, including:

  • The amount of warning you are likely to have that a carjacking is occurring or about to occur
  • Your willingness and ability to defend yourself against a violent attack
  • The presence of others (especially juvenile, elderly or disabled passengers) who may not be able to exit the vehicle quickly or at all

Regardless of the particular response or responses you choose, it is important to think about them, plan for them and potentially even practice them before a carjacking occurs. Absent such preparations, the most common reaction to any assault (including carjacking) is to freeze – at which point the worst-case outcomes are most likely to occur.

The Bottom Line

Carjacking is a terrible crime with terrible consequences for the victims. While there are steps every driver can (and should!) take to minimize their potential of becoming a carjacking victim, it is equally important to plan for the worst and consider in advance how to react to a carjacker in a variety of different scenarios. For additional information, ideas and guidance please consider attending a Refuse To Be A Victim® crime-prevention seminar or contacting your local police department’s Community Relations officer.


One Response

  1. […] friends at No Victims recently posted a how-to guide to avoid carjackings, and how to maximize potential for survival if a carjacking cannot be […]

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