Personal security on the move

Charlie Fox

Last year I ran the first in what I promised would be an occasional series of ‘guest’ blogs by my protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox on the subject of personal safety. Charlie had a short-lived career in the Women’s Royal Army Corps, passing selection for Special Forces training, but being dishonourably discharged following a court martial. (Don’t ask.) She then taught self-defence for women in a small northern UK city, and eventually moved into a career as a bodyguard – initially for a London-based outfit run by her partner, Sean Meyer. When Sean was offered a partnership in Parker Armstrong’s prestigious close-protection agency in New York City, Charlie moved with Sean to Manhattan. She has been based there ever since.

Let me tell you, car drivers have it easy – sometimes too easy. There you are sitting in a cushioned little tin box on wheels, largely oblivious to what’s going on around you, but cocooned in your own little bubble of false security.

You think you’re safe in there, but you’re not.

Can’t you tell I’ve spent most of my motoring life on two wheels instead? Especially since moving to New York City. Like any city, getting around by car can be slower than walking and daily parking fees would just about feed a family of four for a month. Riding a motorcycle is the best way to cut through traffic, although since my Buell got trashed (another ‘don’t ask’ moment – ZS) I’m seriously thinking about sticking to travelling either by the subway or by up-armoured Lincoln Navigator.

Personal security on the move begins before you ever leave home. Well before. Never does any harm to walk around your car on a regular basis and check none of your tyres have gone soft, or are wearing unevenly. Tyre failure is the biggest cause of motorway accidents in the UK. And looking at the way some people abuse their wheels every time they park, I’m not surprised.

If I’m taking out a principal in their own car, I do a walk-round check every time. I also look for anything underneath or attached to it, often disguised as litter. Doesn’t need to be explosives – on one local sink estate the kiddies thought it was a great laugh to wedge nails against the tyres of cars parked outside the local late-night convenience store, just to watch the tyres go pop as they were driven away. Changing one flat tyre is a nuisance. Changing two involves calling your breakdown recovery service.

Speaking of which, it might just be worth checking that the spare wheel is inflated and has enough tread on it to get you home, and that the jack and wheelbrace are where they should be. Oh, and if your car has locking wheelnuts, make sure you have the key – better to find it now than have to search in the dark, in the rain, at three a.m. on a scary piece of lonely road.

Carry a map. Sounds obvious, but in these days of handheld GPS units a lot of people don’t bother any more. Bad weather like snow will block the GPS antenna from picking up a signal from the satellite and you’ll be doubly lost unless you can still do it the old-fashioned way.

Knowing where you’re going is a fundamental piece of safety advice. GPS is good, but not that good, and not all the time. If you’re going somewhere new for the first time, double-check the address and if necessary instruct the GPS to take you to a precise point on a map rather than the postcode or zip code, which could be anywhere within several miles of your actual destination.

If you’re travelling outside your home country, you have to decide if you’re going to rent a car and drive yourself or rely on local drivers or taxis. If you decide to rent, make sure there’s nothing about the vehicle that obviously marks you out as a foreigner. And learn which local rules of the road you can break to blend in.

In a hot climate air conditioning is not a luxury, it’s a necessity because it enables you to drive without all the windows open. Same goes for central locking. If it isn’t automatic, activate it before you set off rather than waiting until you’re in a dangerous situation – the sound of the locks operating may act as provocation.

In some countries, using taxis can be safer, unless they’re scoping out tourists as potential kidnap victims. Ask your hotel to recommend drivers they’ve used before without incident. Get an idea of the fare before you set out, and don’t flash too much cash when you’re settling up. And always make sure people know where you’re going and when you’re likely to return.

Of course, I’m generally happier in something with armour – it goes with the job. And if the vehicle is fitted with a direction-of-fire indicator so you don’t debus into incoming sniper fire, so much the better. But I’ve been known to stuff Kevlar body armour inside door panels or lay them on seats for instant protection.

OK, I realise that for most people this advice seems like overkill. But certain habits when you’re in your car are good practice, no matter who or where you are.

If you live in a city where you’re often caught in slow-moving traffic and car-jacking is a possibility, get anti-smash window film fitted to the side glass. Put your bag or laptop on the floor rather than on the passenger seat.

Women drivers should avoid having a private registration with an obviously female first name on it. And never mind valuables, don’t leave any personal items on show when you park. Particularly anything that makes your gender obvious. If you drive a girlie car, though, there’s not much you can do to disguise that.

When you leave the car, bear in mind what time it will be when you come back to it. It may not seem important to park under a light during the day, but after dark you’ll be glad you did. In a multi-storey parking garage, reverse park so you can drive out forwards quickly and easily.

Make sure you have your keys in your hand long before you reach your car, so you’re not standing there fumbling in your bag or pockets. If your alarm has the feature, keep your thumb on the panic button as you approach, just in case. Most alarms or remote central locking systems automatically put the interior lights on when the locks disengage. And I know it’s an urban myth, but check the back seat anyway before you get in.

I always do.

So, ‘Rati, any tips to add to these from Charlie? Any near misses you’ve experienced or heard about while you’ve been on the road?

This week’s Words of the Week are flotsam and jetsam. Jetsam are goods jettisoned from a ship in time of danger, but also goods from a wreck that remain under water. The word is a contraction of jettison, from the Latin jacere, to throw. Flotsam, on the other hand, are goods lost overboard as the ship sinks and found floating on the sea.

19 thoughts on “Personal security on the move

  1. Sarah W

    I agree with loud door locks being provocation — I saw a bystander throw a full cup of something (maybe coffee, maybe not) at the car in front of me when the driver (according to the hollering) locked their doors while waiting at an intersection next to a bus stop.

    I took a police driving course last year (required for my job, oddly enough, though I jumped at the chance), and was told to always keep half a car-length back from the car in front of me when we stopped, so I could get around them and away if I needed to.

    We were also told to vary our routes to our regular destinations so we didn't get complacent about our surroundings *and* someone scouting for a possible carjack wouldn't know exactly where to set up an "incident."

    Now, what is a 'direction-of-fire' indicator, how does it work, and is it half as cool as it sounds?

    (Flotsam and Jetsam was one of my favorite metal bands, waaay back in the day)

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Fun to do the police driving course! I’ve done skidpan stuff and the usual handbrake turns, etc. I ran out of room to put in all the tips I wanted to, which would have included those you mention about always leaving yourself space to manoeuvre in traffic, and varying your routes. In fact, many carjackings take place at home, and the easiest way is to put an obstruction in front of your driveway, which people automatically get out of the car – usually leaving the engine running and the door open – to shift. If you arrive home and something doesn’t feel right, keep driving and go to a friend’s house. Call in reinforcements.

    A direction-of-fire indicator does exactly what it says. A series of microphones placed around the vehicle pick up the sound of gunfire and work out the direction from which it came. The early ones that Crayford used to fit were linked up to a simple radar-type screen between the front seats, which showed where the shots came from.

  3. Tammy Cravit

    Thanks for another great post!

    I think that maintaining a level of situational awareness – not just of the road and traffic conditions, but of what's going on besides that – is important, and it's something that we often don't do when driving. We listen to the radio, fiddle with the AC, talk on our cell phones, and when something happens we're caught off-guard.

    I have a friend who's a light plane owner and pilot. He tells me that, when he's flying (and even, or perhaps especially, when the GPS and autopilot are handling the aircraft) he's constantly asking himself the question, "if something really bad happened right now, where would I land? Is that road, that field, that clearing big enough? If I set down there, what would stop the airplane?" This kind of situational awareness has saved his life at least twice.

    When I drive, I try to ask myself the same sort of question. "If something happened right now and I couldn't keep driving straight down the road, where would I go?" By framing the question that way, I keep half an eye on what's going on in the sidewalks, on the shoulder, in the median area, and I have both an escape plan and a better general awareness of what's going on around me.

    I wonder, though, if driving something with armor would tend to make one a bit complacent? As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Gavin de Becker's work, and I think in his view that sense of vulnerability we have is what keeps (or, perhaps, should keep) us vigilant.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy

    I can well imagine that flying a light aircraft does make you very alert to the possibility of having to set down somewhere in a hurry. It's not like coasting to the side of the road if you break down in your car …

    I've always thought that everybody ought to ride a motorcycle before they're allowed to drive a car. It makes you so aware of what's going on around you, the weather and road conditions, possible hazards, other traffic. On a bike I always assume that I am invisible and everybody else on the road is out to kill me. Sounds a little paranoid, but it usually works!

  5. Allison Davis

    Thanks Charlie. Nice follow on from yesterday's blog that touched on women's need to be viligence against violence.

  6. Alaina

    According to Mythbusters, phone books stuffed in cars where the insulation usually goes will stop the average bullet. Not high-powered assault rifles, and no use on windows, but most people don't have kevlar armor to stuff in those cracks.

    A good one to remember in a safe area: always lock your car when you're not in it, even if it's in your own parking garage. A few years back, there was a 'crime spree' where a group of thieves went to every unlocked car they could find under cover of darkness, took all the loose change– leaving everything else behind– and ran. They made off with a few thousand dollars in coins and $1 bills.

    Other basic tips: watch for the other cars around where you've parked. Big vans with tinted windows are a no-no, of course, but less obvious is that idiot who doesn't know how to park. Having to turn sideways and hold your breath to get to the door is a situation that has me, if I'm alone, getting on my hands and knees from a distance to check under the car first. Or, if there's someone in the other car, trying to signal them to pull out and repark.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alaina
    Haven’t seen that episode of Mythbusters! I really must try and find that series on DVD.

    Luckily for Charlie, she does have things like body armour lying around handy. I think I’ve seen a couple of videos where they tried firing rounds into thick books to see what they would penetrate. It was suggested at one point that thick school textbooks might prove a lifesaver in a school shooting situation.

    I always do lock my car when I walk away from it, but that’s just habit. And I do keep car park machine change in the car, so those enterprising thieves would have added to their haul from me 🙂

    People who park really close in car parks infuriate me at the best of times.

    Good points, all!

  8. Jenni L.

    Sarah pretty much covered my tips. Growing up in Africa and Asia, my dad always warned us to take a different route to and from school & home if we could. And we were always watching for potential danger, especially in places like Zaire/Congo, where the slightest incident could set off a riot. We had a really horrible, tragic experience once where we witnessed a traffic accident in Zaire which triggered mob violence and a European woman was killed – ripped apart by the mob. After that, our Embassy told us if we ever hit a pedestrian, we were not to stop, just to drive as fast as possible to the Embassy and get directly out of the country. In some countries, if you're in an accident in a taxi, even if it's not your driver's fault, you personally can be held responsible because the logic goes that if you hadn't hired the cab, the accident wouldn't have happened.

    Leaving space between you and the car in front of you at a traffic light makes sense for general traffic safety as well – I can't tell you how many auto accident cases I've worked on where one car is pushed into another when the driver behind hits them at full speed, failing to notice traffic has slowed or stopped.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jenni
    Wow, I must admit I hadn't heard about the fare getting the blame for bad taxi driving. Good job that doesn't happen in Paris. Last time we were there our cab driver only managed to hit one other car on the way from the airport to the hotel – we thought ourselves lucky …

    On a similar note to leaving space in front of you so you don't get shunted into the vehicle in front, another good tip is if you're waiting to turn across traffic from a main road into a side road, don't put any lock on the front wheels before the turn. Modern power steering makes it unncessary, and if the wheels are turned and you get hit up the back by another car, this will push you not straight forwards but out into the oncoming lane.

  10. David Corbett

    Great post as always, Charlie. Only thing I could add would be to inspect the ground around your car for strange bits of debris, such as metal coil, tape or powder that might suggest someone's been up to something, and check near the tires for any sharp objects put there to deflate them. If you're truly paranoid, check under the hood to make sure nothing's been added or subtracted, and inspect the undercarriage with an extendable mirror. Oh, and if you're faced with a road block, don't plow through it. Aim for the front or rear fender as near to the end of the blocking vehicle as possible, make contact at 5 mph and push the vehicle out of the way. I know, slow seems counterintuitive, but fast will just create a wreck. And if you have to shoot at someone through the glass, use your first bullet with the barrel in contact with the window to shatter the glass, then fire at your exterior target.

  11. KDJames

    Incoming sniper fire. Damn. I knew I'd been overlooking something in my daily commute.

    Many years ago, shortly after he bought his Porsche 928 convertible (custom job) my brother-in-law took the driving course from Bob Bondurant out in CA and he relayed several safety tips from that — the only one I remember is leaving distance between your car and the one in front of you when stopped. And to try not to be stopped in the center lane if there are more than two lanes.

    My daughter moved to New Orleans a year and a half ago and her idea of knowing where she's going is to get a general ballpark idea, start driving in that direction and then call me and ask whether I'm near a computer and can I Google directions for her. I now know more about how to get around that city than probably most residents do. And I've never even been there. Sigh.

    Another tip that isn't directly related to driving: if you stop and pick up your mail on the way to wherever, don't leave it sitting face up on the car seat so people can see your home address. They will know you're not home (or at least that your car is not at home), which makes your home an easy target for burglary, and you will have given information that allows them to be there waiting for you if they're interested in something other than burglary.

    Good tips, Charlie. 🙂 Thanks for passing them on, Zoë!

  12. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    Just a small contribution today. Electronics malfunctioned few days ago and jammed my chair under the bank of mail boxes — and would not stop pushing forward. Hurting more today than before. Brought to mind the following about relying on electronics. These "deaths by GPS" happened in Death Valley close to where we lived on the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake [Hi Brett] for 20 yrs.

    "It's what I'm beginning to call death by GPS," said Death Valley wilderness coordinator Charlie Callagan. "People are renting vehicles with GPS and they have no idea how it works and they are willing to trust the GPS to lead them into the middle of nowhere.

    "With another potentially deadly summer season approaching, Death Valley managers now are adding heat danger warnings to dozens of new wayside exhibits and working with technology companies to remove closed and hazardous roads from GPS units. They also have posted warnings on the park's website, telling visitors not to rely on cell phones or GPS units.

    "It's important for people to know that only a tiny portion of Death Valley has cell phone reception . . . GPS units are not only fallible but send people across the desert where no road exists.

    "Over the past 15 years, at least a dozen people have died in Death Valley from heat-related illnesses, and many others have come close. Another hiker vanished last June in Joshua Tree National Park. His body has not yet been found.

    These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death."

    Read more here:

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    Actually, the best way to ram anything is to reverse into it if you possibly can, as there’s less to damage – ie, radiator – at the back end of your car. Manufacturers usually ensure the fuel tank is well inboard just in case of a rear-ender, so you should be OK.

    I remember Clifford vehicle alarms being launched in the UK and some of their features were amazing at the time. Like having a proximity sensor that could be set to cover not just the interior of a vehicle, but the space underneath it. Even if you’d been out of earshot when it was triggered, when you came back to the car and disarmed the alarm, the number of bleeps would tell you which sensor had been triggered so you could check out that area carefully.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi KD
    So, you are a personal GPS for your daughter? She should at least be offering to take you round in person so you can see the places you’ve directed her to!

    Good tip about the mail. However, if you carry your insurance or registration docs in your car all the time, and you have an electric garage door opener, if someone steals your car they then have your address and a means of getting into your house that’s not going to attract the attention of your neighbours – they can simply drive your car into your

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Wow, that sounds terrible about your chair. Hope you’re OK.

    We have people who slavishly follow their GPS in the UK – they’re known as nav-chavs. People have even driven into rivers before now because their sat-nav told them to. I treat ours as a moving map rather than an all-commanding master. It has tried to take us down a few ‘interesting’ short cuts, but you have to use some common sense along with everything else.

    Terrible that people are following it out into the desert and dying out there. There’s no substitute for being able to navigate the old-fashioned way. It’s why – when we eventually go sailing again – I’ll be taking my GPS *and* my sextant!

  16. crimeficreader

    True story:

    if your vehicle is the likely target of a break-in, it's very handy to ensure it has a flat battery, especially if you have electric windows and central locking. Those pesky, cowardly thieves may then smash your smallest window only to find they can't disengage the lock manually and therefore can't get into the vehicle without going big time on another bigger window. (Which is likely to make so much noise it attracts attention.) You can double up on that 'handy' by having an empty glove compartment. Treble it by making sure your model has an ill-fitting fuse box cover in there, so they get confused and think there might be something in there.

    OK, you'll have the inconvenience and cost of the break-in, but you'll also acquire a great glow from gloating over the frustration and likely anger those pesky and cowardly potential thieves will have suffered.

    Said vehicle was parked in a residential area, right outside a house and right under a working street light. The attempted theft happened overnight.

  17. crimeficreader

    And Zoe, of those tips above, how many do you actually carry out? I particularly wonder about the checking around and under the car before you get in it. Thanks!

  18. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    The old fashioned way is critical to know. We are so used to the new electronics we seem surprised when our phones can't connect just when we need it most.

    Scout used to teach a wilderness survival course in the Sierra that started with a simple pocket compass and learning how to triangulate. I hate reading topographic maps, myself, but I can do it, and I know how to store them.

    When I was a kid back in Salem and Marblehead, all the girls learned the basic navigational skills before going out on the water. Most of the boys I knew joined Sea Scouts, while the girls joined Mariner Scouts. I believe today they are united as Explorer Scouts. If you didn't learn those basic skills, you couldn't go on the sailing events. In high school the boys, especially, loved it, as they were often called out of class to go on search and rescue. Back then the girls were not called, but I expect they are now. My teens were just at the edge of that time of social change.

    Thanks for asking about my chair. It's fine. I had the electronic controls replaced with the trusty old set, and we reset the unit's height with a much larger mushroom-shaped control knob that I can rest my whole hand on thereby spreading the stress load on the muscles. Works great! Kendall likes it, because he couldn't make the track pad version work. Well nobody could. Now he can push me toward his food dish very easily. So Gabby (my chair) Kendall, and I are cruisin' once again. U..U

    By the way, the email notice feature for Murderati seems to have a teensy flaw, in that the author comments don't trigger email notification, while the reader comments do. So if a reader is waiting for an author comment they might not know one was posted. For example, I didn't know you had posted comments here until I checked out crimeficreader's comments after receiving email notification. Once here, I saw you'd written three that I'd missed because there was no notification that you had posted them. This happens all the time with the various authors' comments– on their own blog posts. Because of the way you sign onto the text editor??? I should have mentioned it before. So very sorry.

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