Pedestrians Need Protection from Motor Vehicles Used as Deadly Weapons

As of press time on Friday, the death toll from the Nice Bastille Day massacre is 84, injuries exceeding 200, a record for an act of alleged terrorism committed by a single person. It also sets a record for death by the use of a motor vehicle.
July 16, 2016, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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When I initially heard on Thursday afternoon that a truck had caused dozens of deaths at a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, and that the truck was laden with weapons and explosives, I thought the media was describing a "truck bomb." As the details of the largest mass murder of people by a single individual were revealed, it was made clear that the main weapon was the truck itself, being driven by someone intent on killing as many innocent civilians as possible.

"Just before the carnage Thursday night, hundreds, if not thousands, had gathered on the promenade to watch a colorful display of fireworks and live music for the national holiday," reports CNN.

"Starting around 10:45 p.m., the attacker mowed down scores of victims in Nice with a rented 19-ton refrigerated truck before engaging in a gunfight with three police officers, who pursued him down a storied seaside promenade before finally killing him," reports The New York Times

The driver was allegedly Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old French-Tunisian delivery driver "known to the police for assault with a weapon, domestic violence, threats and robbery but had no previous convictions for terrorism," reports The Telegraph.

Motor vehicles intentionally used as deadly weapons

Bouhlel undertook "a tactic authorities have warned about for several years," writes Alex Johnson for NBC News.

As early as December 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an alert to law enforcement warning that "such attacks could be used to target locations where large numbers of people congregate, including sporting events, entertainment venues, or shopping centers."

So-called vehicle ramming is alluring to potential attackers because it offers them an opportunity to conduct strikes without firearms or explosives and with "minimal prior training or experience," DHS said. [Italics added.]

As for firearms and explosives, incredibly, all those initial reports were way off. Other than a handgun, the weapons and explosives were either non-existent or fake, according to CNN.

After Bouhlel was shot, police found a handgun and some ammunition in the truck's cab, as well as a replica handgun, two replica assault rifles, a cell phone and various documents, Molins said. In the trailer was the bicycle and some empty pallets.

Bouhlel was known as someone who biked everywhere, even carrying it up the stairs to his apartment. He used that bicycle to ride to the lorry-rental facility.

Back to the DHS warning about such attacks. Johnson of NBC continues:

The [DHS] bulletin advised officers to be especially alert for "commercial motor vehicles or heavy equipment being operated erratically, at unusual times, or in unusual locations, particularly in heavy pedestrian areas."

Johnson goes on to list examples of vehicles used by individuals as weapons of carnage:

  • 1995, San Diego: an army veteran stole a tank, but no fatalities other than himself.
  • 2006, North Carolina: Iranian former student used SUV to plow into crowd, no fatalities.
  • 2009, Netherlands: potential royal family assassin plows into parade with car, eight fatalities.
  • 2014, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec: "ISIS-inspired" terrorist rams into two Canadian soldiers in the parking lot of a shopping center, one dies.
  • 2014Jerusalem: terrorist slams into a crowd of people at a light rail stop in Jerusalem, killing two.
  • 2014, Dijon and Nantes, France: Two men crash their cars into groups of pedestrians on successive days. Eleven people are injured in Dijon, and the next day, one person is killed and nine others are injured in Nantes.
Just as steel-enforced bollards and barricades protect buildings from truck attacks, such as a 2001 attack on the state Capitol in Sacramento, security experts will need to consider how to protect mass gatherings of people at outdoor events from the intentional use of motor vehicles as weapons.
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Published on Friday, July 15, 2016 in NBC News
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