Roger Dunn* thought nothing of it when a white pickup truck pulled alongside his sedan on an Illinois expressway—until the driver tried to run him off the road. With his wife in the passenger seat and his two kids, ages 11 and 7, in the back, Dunn was desperate to avoid a confrontation with a maniac. So he took the next exit. His antagonist did the same.
As the pickup tailed him, Dunn pulled over, hoping that the driver would pass him. Instead, he skidded to a halt, threw the gear into reverse, and tried ramming Dunn’s car.
“I thought this was it,” said Dunn. “My daughter and wife were screaming. My son was praying.”
Dunn drove off, weaving in and out of traffic. He took a turn too wide, lost control of the car, and spun it around, coming to a cold stop in an intersection. When the pickup flew over a curb, barely missing him, Dunn hit the gas again. This time, he noticed a police car outside a strip mall and turned in. Minutes later, the driver, who was drunk, was arrested. Dunn never did find out why he went berserk.
The frightening thing about this true story, which came from a Reader’s Digest reader, is that it can happen to any of us. We’re all potential victims of crime.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, has interviewed thousands of people who’ve survived life-and-death situations. The one thing they had in common was a game plan. “They had decided ahead of time what they were going to do—run, fight, or whatever it took to survive,” explains Grossman. “So at the moment of truth, they were not paralyzed.”
Grossman is not talking about living in fear. He’s talking about being smart. For example, if you’re taking a road trip like the Dunns were, program police stations and hospitals into your car’s GPS—the press of a button will direct you to safety.
Here are more tips for avoiding, defusing, and escaping threatening situations. It’s everything you need to know to become your own bodyguard.
1. Maintain a circle of awareness
“Criminals are looking for easy victims, people who aren’t paying attention,” says Thomas Taylor, a security expert who has helped protect every U.S. president since Gerald Ford. So turn the tables on them. If you’re in a crowd, keep an eye out for anyone who “separates himself by his behavior, his dress, or his manner,” he says. “Ask yourself, Who here gets my attention? Listen to your intuition.”
Taylor’s team actually assigns names to certain suspect types, like:
The Organizer: Somebody who is reaching into a bag or a coat pocket, something most people wouldn’t do if they’re at a concert or watching a speaker. It might be something a robber would do right before pulling out a weapon.
The Secret Team: Two or more nonadjacent people signaling each other through gestures or eye contact.
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The Grouch: Someone other people in the crowd are avoiding because of behavior, smell, or style of dress.
The Inspector: Someone who is watching security instead of the event.
2. Carry “mugger’s money”
Kathy Ortwein* was waiting alone at a Jersey City, New Jersey, bus stop when a gang of teenagers grabbed her purse and ran. Incensed, she chased after them, only to be hit over the head with a roll of coins and slammed against a car. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but she did learn a hard lesson. “The best way to defend yourself in a crime like this is to not defend yourself,” she says. “When the bus arrived, I should have just asked the driver to call the police.”
Tony Blauer, CEO of Blauer Tactical Systems, which specializes in personal-safety training, agrees. In fact, when you’re in an environment where robbery is possible (a sketchy neighborhood or a foreign country), carry “mugger’s money,” he says. Keep it in a wallet separate from other valuables or in an outside pocket where you can quickly access it. If approached, hand it over. If you get roughed up, step back onto grass or even sit on a bench to lessen the chance of injury in a fall.
“Usually, though, once you hand over that money,” Blauer says, “the mugger will be satisfied, and he’ll run.”
3. If you’re attacked, yell “Fire!”
Yell “Fire!” not “Help!” The instinctive reaction of most bystanders when they hear the word help is self-preservation. “They immediately think, I don’t want to get too close to that, because it sounds bad,” says Blauer. But the word fire triggers a much different response. Most people think they can do something about that, or, at the very least, their curiosity prods them to check it out. Either way, you get help.
4. During an attempted break-in, don’t turn on the lights
If you’re awakened in the middle of the night by a strange noise, don’t turn on the lights, says Mark Safarik, a retired FBI profiler. That will diminish your night vision. Plus, if you’re near a window, a potential intruder will be able to see in and instantly know where you are. Instead, dial 911 immediately, then press the panic button on your car’s remote entry device (most have one). It’s capable of triggering the alarm from a distance of some 30 to 60 feet, and the loud noise may well frighten the intruder away.
By the way, if you’re thinking of getting a gun for protection, make sure you really know how to handle one, says Safarik. If not, opt for getting a dog with a loud bark.
5. When a stranger is at your door, demand ID
Because criminals often use a ruse to gain entry to a home, like wearing a uniform or saying they have a delivery, always demand identification, even if it’s the police. And make them show it to you through the peephole or a window, says Safarik. Still not satisfied? Ask for a phone number so you can verify that they’re actually from FedEx or FTD.
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6. If you’re kidnapped, resist smartly
An abduction is one of the most dangerous situations, says Safarik, because “you’re dealing with a much more organized type of offender who has likely planned it out and is taking you to a place where you’ll be either seriously injured or killed.” To protect yourself:
React with maximum resistance at the outset: “Do not let him gain control of you,” says Safarik. “Since it’s probably occurring in a public place, this is the most vulnerable time for the criminal and your best chance of survival. Scream, fight, do whatever it takes to get away.” If he has a weapon, weigh the risk of his using it against the importance of acting fast.
If you’re driving, cause an accident: If you’re in a situation where you can’t fight back (he’s in the rear seat with a gun to your head, for instance), create a minor accident on a busy street. “When you hit another car, you have an immediate audience,” Safarik says, “and the guy will usually flee.”
If you’re locked in the trunk, look for the release: Newer-model cars have a safety handle inside the trunk that unlatches it. If you can’t find one, break or kick out the rear taillight and wave your hand or foot to attract attention.
7. During an attempted rape, trust your instincts
“There are no cookie-cutter answers when dealing with rape,” says Taylor. And anything you do could make a bad situation worse, so it’s important to always trust your instincts. But should you find yourself in such a circumstance, you might want to consider these tips:
Note his disguise: “If he’s wearing a mask,” says Safarik, “he’s probably intent on leaving you alive because he doesn’t want you to be able to describe him to police.” If he’s not wearing a mask, then the situation might be more dangerous, and you should consider taking on more risk to escape, says Safarik.
Resist passively with body language: Keep your legs together and arms crossed to give him subtle cues of opposition.
Destroy his idealized girlfriend fantasy: “A lot of these guys have a fantasy about the rape that you need to destroy,” notes Safarik. “Bring them back to reality by saying ‘Your girlfriend wouldn’t like this,’ ‘I don’t like this,’ ‘You’re hurting me’—basically anything that will change his perception of what he thinks is a passionate situation.”
8. Practice dialing (and speaking)
Ever wonder why people’s faces go white when they’re scared? It’s because the body’s defense mechanism redirects blood flow from its periphery to its core. This causes a loss of fine-motor skills, so your fingers and even your tongue may not operate as smoothly as usual. This is why it’s important not only to practice dialing for help in an emergency but also to rehearse what you’ll say (e.g., “This is 1422 South Main … there’s an intruder in the house … send help”). Practice makes the whole process more mechanical and less susceptible to stress. So disconnect your home phone and make your family do the drill. Then repeat it using their (turned-off) cell phones, reminding them to press 911 and Send.
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“Police dispatchers I’ve spoken with have something they call the elderly obscene phone call,” adds Grossman, the former West Point psychology professor. “It’s an older person who is so scared that she can’t speak. All the dispatchers hear is heavy breathing. The time to think what to do is not during a life-and-death situation. By then, it should be automatic.”
9. Do a violence drill
Schools, businesses, and even many homes conduct periodic fire drills. Grossman argues we should add to the list “violence drills,” in which escape routes and lockdown plans are mapped out and rehearsed. Discuss with your family what should happen if someone sneaks into your house—which window to climb out of, what object to use to break that window, where to hide. “There’s a tendency to believe that in such situations, we will all rise to the occasion,” he adds. “We don’t. Instead, we sink to the level of our training.”
10. DVR the hero scenes
The boob tube isn’t all bad—you can train yourself to react in threatening situations by watching movies and TV. Grossman explains that our brains contain “mirror neurons” that fire in reaction to observed responses as if we were actually doing them. So if a character in a film breaks a window with a chair and helps some kids to safety, replay the scene a few times and rehearse it in your mind. “Be the hero of your own movie,” says Grossman. “Tell yourself, If I’m ever in this situation, that’s what I’m going to do. This is how successful military and law-enforcement personnel prepare.”
11. Take snapshots, not movies
Ever wonder how Secret Service agents can stand on post for three hours and not let their minds wander? They’re busy taking mental snapshots of their surroundings and picking out anyone who could pose a problem. They train to stay focused, and so can you with this exercise:
Place a deck of playing cards on a table. As quickly as possible, flip over one card at a time. When you come to a jack, lay it down, faceup. When you come to a nine, lay it down to the right of the jack. When you come to a three, lay it down to the right of the nine. Toss all other cards over your shoulder—you’re not concerned about them. Shuffle, and start again.
“It’s impossible to think about your golf game or anything else when you’re doing this,” explains Taylor. “Your mind is totally focused on looking at each card and staying in the now.” Just as it should be when you’re in a scary situation.
* Names changed to protect privacy.