Vehicle-ramming attacks – are they a growing threat?

May 29, 2018
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San José, CA

Ramming attacks in which drivers deliberately plow their vehicles into public gatherings, pedestrians, or bicyclists, have become an increasingly common terrorist tactic. A new Mineta Transportation Institute Security Perspective, An Analysis of Vehicle Ramming as a Terrorist Tactic, by Brian Michael Jenkins and Bruce R. Butterworth analyzes 78 vehicular attacks between January 1973 and April 2018.

According to their analysis, it is a growing trend, and a frightening one. The 78 attacks led to 281 deaths and approximately 1,200 injuries. Sixteen attacks took place between 1973 and 2007, while 62 took place between 2008 and April 2018. Thirty of these occurred in 2017 and the first four months of 2018 alone.

Both al Qaeda and ISIS have urged the use of vehicles to mow down pedestrians. According to Jenkins, MTI’s Director of the National Transportation Security Center (NTSC), “it is an ideal tactic for today’s circumstances. Vehicles are a readily available ‘weapon.’ Limited skill is required, and the ability to drive is widespread. Little preparation is required for an attack. Cities filled with people and vehicles provide ample targets, which cannot easily be protected, and high body counts are potentially achievable.” It is not surprising, then, that the number of car-ramming attacks has increased.

The lethality of vehicle-ramming attacks is a concern. In this analysis, the average fatality per attack (FPA) was 3.6, compared to only 2.3 for all attacks against surface transportation targets during the same period. While vehicle-ramming attacks are not on the same scale as bombings, armed assaults, or derailment attempts, they appear to be an easy way for terrorists, especially those lacking firearms and explosives, to kill in quantity.

Jenkins and Butterworth conduct an in-depth analysis that looks at geographic distribution, lethality, suicidal tendency of the attacker, different groups of attackers (e.g. jihadist, mentally disordered, etc.), as well as types of targets. According to Butterworth, Senior Transportation Security Researcher at NTSC, “although the numbers are very small, it appears that in the past ten years, attacks on public streets and public gatherings have been increasing as a proportion of the total number of attacks, underscoring the obvious observation that car-ramming attacks are about mass killing.”

The authors describe a number of potential mitigation measures currently being discussed, while also cautioning that these vehicle-ramming attacks cannot easily be prevented. Measures include: increased police presence and surveillance; permanent physical barriers such as bollards, posts, or even trees; temporary barriers during events; among others, including technological solutions. 

The analysis points out that the deadliest attacks occur when vehicle ramming attacks target public gatherings or pedestrianized streets where vehicular access is banned, but not prevented.  These are easier targets to protect than separating pedestrians from vehicles on ordinary city streets.

The complete Security Perspective can be accessed at transweb.sjsu.edu/research/SP0518.

ABOUT THE MINETA TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE

The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) conducts research, education, and information transfer programs regarding surface transportation policy and management issues. The Institute is funded through the US Department of Transportation, the US Department of Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants. The internationally respected members of the MTI Board of Trustees represent all major surface transportation modes. MTI, the lead institute for the four-university Mineta Consortium for Transportation Mobility, is affiliated with San Jose (CA) State University’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business. Visit transweb.sjsu.edu.

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Contact:

Irma Garcia, MTI Communications & Workforce Development Coordinator

408.924.7560

irma.garcia@sjsu.edu