Carjacking is commuters' big worry


September 21, 1992

Commuting can be scary.

The death of Pam Basu in Howard County has focused public attention to the burgeoning crime of carjacking, a violent form of automobile theft.

No longer are traffic accidents the paramount concern of the daily motorist -- although with 710 traffic fatalities on Maryland roads last year, they still ought to be.

Now we have to worry about some criminal sticking a gun in our face and stealing our car at a stoplight.

It is a deadly business that hits many of us, literally, where we live.

We think of our car as an extension of our home, a private territory where we are protected from harm. Carjacking isn't just about stealing something; it's about invading our property and threatening our lives.

Intrepid Commuter has canvassed several police agencies, including the FBI and the state police, as well as advocacy groups, such as the American Automobile Association, for advice on how to deal with the miserable trend.

Some of the tips are common sense -- keep doors locked and windows rolled up when driving, for instance. The advice most frequently cited is to surrender your car, wallet, purse or whatever immediately to someone who is threatening to kill you.

"A car isn't worth somebody's life," says Detective Sgt. William E. Vogel of the state police vehicle theft unit.

Police don't recommend motorists try to repel attackers by using Mace or guns. Resistance can sometimes escalate the level of violence.

They do suggest car alarms and anti-theft devices, with the exception of delayed "kill" switches, which cut off the engine a few minutes after they are triggered. Police fear that attackers might return to vent their anger.

Here are some of the things we should be doing:

* Know your route and have an alternate ready for emergencies. Ideally, any route you take should be well-lighted and well-traveled. Stay away from high-crime areas.

"It's especially important for night commuters," says Sgt. Larry Lewis of the city Police Department's crime resistance unit. "If a street is blocked off because of a fire, people sometimes don't know how to get home."

* Avoid parking in secluded, poorly lighted areas, especially late at night. People who drive expensive cars, take note: Avoiding dents in your car door by parking away from other cars is not necessarily prudent.

* Keep your vehicle in good repair. If you have to pull over for an emergency, try to park in a well-lighted place where other motorists can see you.

* Travel with someone else when possible. A person driving alone is considered the most vulnerable.

* Always be aware of your surroundings. You should look around before turning off your motor when you're parking, for instance.

* Separate your car keys from your house keys and have the car key ready when approaching your car. Do not leave your vehicle registration, driver's license or other documents with your name and address inside your car.

* Don't walk alone to your car at night. If you see someone loitering near your car, walk away. If the loiterer remains for a few minutes, call police.

* Be suspicious of people who approach your car, including those asking for change or distributing fliers. Drive in the center lane when possible, rather than beside the curb.

* Lock your car and take the keys with you even for brief errands. Be especially cautious around automated teller machines.

* Keep your house and driveway well lighted. You may beep your horn and have someone inside turn on the light or open the door, if possible.

* Be careful after minor accidents. For example, if you get bumped from behind and don't feel comfortable getting out of the car, motion to the other driver to follow your vehicle to the nearest police station, convenience store, service station, hospital or fire station.


On a lighter note, Intrepid Commuter got a detective lesson this week.

How often have you stood on the sidewalk at some intersection in Baltimore, punched the button labeled "press to cross," and found absolutely no discernible change in the timing of the traffic light?

Are they all broken or something?

Actually, no, says Frederick Marc, an assistant city transportation commissioner.

They're simply misunderstood.

When a pedestrian pushes the button, Mr. Marc tells us, he or she is telling the controller, the device that manages the traffic signal, that a pedestrian is waiting to cross.

In turn, the controller makes sure that when it's time to flash the "WALK" sign, it will stay on long enough for someone to cross. In most cases, it won't cause the signal to change immediately.

"If you didn't touch it, you would still get a walk signal, but you wouldn't necessarily have enough time to cross the street," Mr. Marc says.

The system makes sense, of course. If pedestrians could reorder every signal, it could really screw up traffic for the rest of us.

On a related subject, a reader expresses concern over another type of detector, the kind that you usually see as a square buried in the pavement, often at the left-turn lane of an intersection.

They are "loop detectors," magnetic sensors that can tell whether any vehicles are lined up for the light. The controller will decide how long to allow a green arrow signal to stay on based on information supplied by the detector.

There are also detectors based on light, radar and sound wave patterns. The magnetic detectors are the most popular these days.

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