The Vehicle In Mass Casualty Events

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A driver rammed into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing at least five people and injuring 48 others. Although not characterized as a terror event, it appears to many that the suspect deliberately targeted spectators at high speed. The attack parallels the killing of 86 people and the wounding of 434 others in Nice, France by a truck during a fireworks display several years ago.

Despite the claim that the killings were not terror-related, the method used was similar to those used by jihadists. Even if not jihad-related, the use of vehicles to inflict mass casualties is not occurring by accident.

The origin of the strategy is unclear, but an English-language ISIS magazine called “Rumiyah” called for vehicle attacks on the West some years ago. An article that discussed which vehicles are best to do the most damage was titled “Just Terror Tactics”. Al-Qaeda has called pickup trucks “the ultimate mowing machine”.

Business Insider quoted an article in the magazine: “Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner…Vehicles are like knives, as they are extremely easy to acquire…”

Ordinarily, mass casualty events are associated with guns, but these items are difficult to come by in most countries. Bombs, another preferred terrorist weapon, require expertise to assemble safely. Owning or renting a vehicle, however, is much more common and requires little skill to operate. Trucks and cars can cause mass casualties if wielded as a weapon; obtaining one elicits no suspicion.

Therefore, those willing to cause murder and mayhem now have a new blueprint. There are few who pay much attention to traffic unless they’re in a vehicle themselves or crossing the street. The speed at which a vehicle can accelerate and turn into a crowd leaves little time for reaction. Hence, the “success” rate of this type of terror event may surpass even a gunman’s ability to cause deaths and injuries.

The increasing number of terror events around the world underlines the increasing need for situational awareness. Situational awareness is the mindset whereby threats are mentally noted and avoided or abolished. Originally a tool for the military in combat, it is now a strategy for the average citizen in these uncertain times.

Situational awareness may be difficult in crowds

The situationally aware person is always at a state of “Yellow Alert” when in crowded public venues. By that, I mean a state of relaxed but vigilant observation of what is happening around him or her. When an action or behavior occurs that doesn’t match the surroundings and situation, it’s an anomaly.

When a vehicle moves erratically or leaves the normal pattern of traffic, it’s an anomaly that requires rapid action. Mentally noting routes of escape whenever you’re in a crowd will give you the best chance of getting out of the way. Just as knowing the location of exits in a mall or theatre is good policy, a heightened awareness is now important at any outdoor event or popular public area near roadways.

For those who use vehicles to kill, the target will be crowds of people near the street. Their objective is mass casualties, and the 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. Take a walk along Times Square and you’ll see what I mean.


Municipalities can protect their citizens by constructing barriers known as “bollards” which would 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. Setting up other types of roadblocks could prevent a vehicle from reaching high enough speeds to plow through crowds.

I’ll admit that the likelihood you’ll be in the path of a maniac 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.

Joe Alton MD

Dr, Alton

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