Preventing people from using vehicles as deadly weapons is a difficult task for law enforcement officials, experts say.
Cars, trucks and vans have been used to ram people more than a dozen times around the world in recent years, often with deadly results similar to those in northern Toronto on Monday.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Monday night what happened does not appear to be connected to national security, but he called the incident a “horrific attack.”
Not all recent vehicle attacks have been linked to terror groups, says Candyce Kelshall, an adjunct professor with the terrorism, risk and security studies program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
She says there have been at least three incidents in Germany in recent years where people have driven cars into groups or buildings, but did not have any connection with Islamic State militants or other terrorist organizations.
Regardless of the motive, it’s tough to stop someone from using a vehicle to kill, Kelshall says.
“You can’t stop people driving cars or walking on streets,” she says. “It’s a difficult to thing to police.”
Vehicles are a popular weapon because they’re accessible, says Alex Wilner, an assistant professor with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson school of international affairs in Ottawa.
“It’s deadly, it’s easy and it’s cheap. So, if you put the math together, it doesn’t take a lot to kill people,” he says.
Cities are increasingly looking for ways to place barriers between vehicles and pedestrians, Wilner says.
In some places, garbage and fire trucks are being put in place at entrances to festivals or markets, he adds.
Similar safety measures were in effect in Toronto on Monday night, with streets closed near the Air Canada Centre where the Maple Leafs were playing an NHL playoff game.
In Vancouver, “heavy vehicle barriers” such as garbage trucks are used at events like Canada Day celebrations or fireworks displays, says Sgt. Jason Robillard.
“I don’t have the exact date of when it started happening but we do utilize that now as part of our everyday operations planning for major events when there’s going to be a large crowd gathered,” he says.
People also need to be aware of their surroundings when out in public, Robillard adds.
“If you’re walking by yourself on the street, don’t have your head down, be aware of where you are and what you’re doing,” he says.
Wilner says several vehicles used in recent attacks have been rentals and there may be some appetite for creating a registry to help prevent similar occurrences. What a registry or database would look like is unclear, he adds.
Mubin Shaikh, an expert on counterterrorism, says he thinks a no-rental list would be a reactive measure that would have minimal impact.
If there are restrictions on rentals, people can still borrow or steal vehicles, he notes.
“A criminal will try to take whatever they can, however they can,” he says.
“Will it deter the determined attacker? Probably not.”
Shaikh, who is from Toronto, says he heard about Monday’s tragedy after landing at an air force base in Germany where he was scheduled to give a briefing on attacks using vehicles.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality in which we live nowadays,” he says, adding that he’s become hyper-vigilant when walking down the street and is constantly looking for cement planters or pillars that he could hide behind if a vehicle jumps the curb.
“At the end of the day, it’s impossible (to prevent). We live in an open society and vehicles are in our proximity all the time. That’s normal city life.”
By Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press. With files from Spencer Harwood.