Research Project: Murder by Mundane Means

Lead Researcher: Dr Satya Savitzky

In the last two years, European and North American cities have witnessed a surge in attacks using so-called ‘weaponised vehicles’. Such attacks have spread quickly across disparate constituencies of militants, who whilst differing in ideological orientation, appear to be part of the same contagious phenomenon. These attacks reveal the affordances provided to terrorists and other rampage killers by (legally available and widely accessible) trucks and cars. In the process, vehicle ramming attacks highlight the ways in which many are – as a matter of course – dangerously exposed to vehicles.

Following a number of vehicle ramming incidents, cycling and road safety activists complained how they had previously warned authorities about the dangers posed by traffic, for instance around the cycle lane in Lower Manhattan through which a rented pick-up truck was driven in October 2017, killing 8, and around London’s Parliament, the scene of an attack in 2017 and then again nearby in September 2018. Such warnings had gone unheeded. Yet following the terror attacks, official, media and public panic set-in at the ease with which terrorists could inflict mass casualties using these ‘crude’ means. Driven by security concerns, both the London Mayor and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner suddenly expressed support for pedestrianizing the area around Parliament, as road safety advocates had long demanded.

The research therefore enquires into the conditions under which vulnerabilities are recognised as such, asking especially why the risks associated with motor transport are only revealed or officially acknowledged under certain specified circumstances. Why do some risks provoke such strong official responses, whilst others, resembling them so closely and occurring under almost identical conditions, are met with official apathy? Why is there such a disproportionate focus on the risk from terror relative to the risk from traffic accidents, despite numbers killed by the latter dwarfing the former? Whilst most traffic collisions are not deliberately inflicted, they are eminently foreseeable and preventable, placing in question their status as ‘accidents’ .

Rampages by gunman usually leads to debate about gun legislation. Yet this has not happened following vehicle ramming attacks. Newspapers and commentators continue to speak of the horrors of the use of ‘mundane’ and familiar objects in such acts of carnage, despite the 1.3 million deaths at the wheels of cars on the world’s roads each year. Authorities in cities around the world are considering and implementing a range of defensive measures, nets, bollards, talons, geofencing technologies, predictive software, automated vehicles that could override malicious drivers; yet the obvious risks to soft and slow bodies posed by hurtling chunks of steel is rarely considered, and hence the most effective measures rarely countenanced.

Motor vehicles’ lethality extends beyond the bodily scale. A vehicle’s capacity to maim and kill is provided by the burning of fuel in the tank, and the emissions which result are the single most important contributor to local air pollution and global climate change. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between vehicles’ capacity to effect bodily harm and propensity to pollute and degrade; the larger and heavier the vehicle, the more kinetic energy is available to break bones and tear flesh, the more fuel is burnt and pollutants emitted. Hence large cargo trucks of the kind used in the Nice, Berlin and Barcelona attacks, are truly the most lethal of objects.

The research explores whether, in contrast to the assumptions underpinning the securitarian interventions sketched above, vehicle ramming attacks might best be addressed through the promotion of so-called ‘liveable cities’ agendas, where cycling, walking and public transport are promoted, with use of diesel and petrol vehicles heavily restricted or banned outright. This would not only make acts of vehicular terror far harder to execute, but would likely have synergistic benefits, promoting simultaneously safer, cleaner, more human-scaled and equitable cities, as a host of civil society organisations and activists have long argued.

Like most viral phenomenon, the current spate of vehicle rammings will likely become less prominent in time. But whilst vehicle ramming attacks might turn out to be a passing fad, the global ‘epidemic’ of traffic accidents is far more permanent condition of life in cities the world over, especially in the global south (around 90 percent of road deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries) as are increasingly severe air pollution and climate change. The question then becomes, can these events serve to highlight, and moreover spur action addressing the inherent harms of automobility? Can the increasing use of vehicles as weapons catalyse a shift in public and legal attitudes, where vehicles, due to the multidimensional harms associated with their use, are understood and treated as a form of ‘firepower’ akin to firearms? Can security concerns be harnessed in such a way as to help provide momentum for liveable and car-free cities agendas? Indeed, the surge in vehicle ramming attacks coincides with revelations that internal combustion engine vehicles need be taken-off the roads by 2040, if the most severe global heating scenarios are to be averted. What is at stake in ‘hijacking’ concerns over terror in order to provide momentum to progressive agendas?