Terrorism attacks using vehicles: the evidence on measures to prevent and mitigate

Flower tributes for the victims of the March 22, 2017 terrorist attack at Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and British Parliament, photo by Pawel Pajor - photobboy/Adobe Stock

Flower tributes for the victims of the 22 March, 2017, terrorist attack at Westminster Bridge

Pawel Pajor - photobboy/Adobe Stock

Researchers identified legal, practical and technological challenges to preventing vehicular terrorism and offered an assessment of future threats and vulnerabilities.

What is the issue?

The frequency of vehicle-ramming attacks as a means of violent extremism has increased in recent years, highlighting a serious threat to people in public spaces. This tactic requires little or no training, no specific skillset, and carries a relatively low risk of early detection. In light of this, the European Commission (EC) sought to understand what measures could be employed to prevent or mitigate such attacks in the future.

How did we help?

Researchers conducted an EC-commissioned study to improve the evidence base on vehicular terrorist attacks that have occurred since 2013 in the EU, Israel, United States and United Kingdom. Among other objectives, the study aimed to increase understanding of measures to counter vehicle-related attacks; identify legal, practical and technological challenges and implications; and offer an assessment of future threats and vulnerabilities.

Researchers used a mixed-methods approach that involved desk research, a survey, key informant interviews and internal analysis workshops with a senior expert advisory board. A final external workshop was held with the board and the EC to discuss, challenge and validate the study’s recommendations.

What did we find?

The public summary presents an overview of findings from the confidential report provided to the European Commission.

While the threat of attacks using vehicles remains low compared with attacks using other readily available weapons, there has been an increase in the frequency of attacks using vehicles – including rented and shared vehicles. The study investigated potential enablers and constraints to this type of attacks and associated gaps for preventing and mitigating them:

  • Elements of the business models of the vehicle rental and sharing industry – such as the ability to rent a vehicle, rental logistics, the level of background checks and involvement from law enforcement – may both enable and constrain terrorist attacks.
  • Prevention and mitigation measures have been put in place by public authorities at national, EU and international levels, within private companies, and via public-private sector collaboration. These include:
    • guidelines, training, awareness campaigns and targeted funding to keep potential terrorists from acquiring a vehicle and/or to protect public space
    • the use of technological solutions such as geofencing or autonomous emergency braking
    • and the implementation of networks for collaboration and information sharing, including industry and law enforcement actors.
  • These measures face several legal, practical and technological challenges, including data protection and fundamental rights concerns, costs and implementation obstacles.
  • Future changes and trends in the mobility industry – such as increased vehicle autonomy, changes in overall mobility patterns and the increased use of artificial intelligence – may lead to new vulnerabilities, particularly cyberattacks and hacking of rented and shared vehicles.
  • Some key issues and gaps include the lack of a standardised regulatory framework at EU-level for vehicle rental and sharing processes; limited collaboration between industry and law enforcement in some EU Member States; the difficulty in identifying suspicious rentals; and vulnerabilities linked to online booking systems.