You might be alone, or – every mother’s nightmare – your child may be with you, when an armed man tries to carjack you.  How can you get everyone safely out of this situation?  There are a lot of variables.  If you have a concealed carry permit, you may have your gun with you when the attack comes, but should you use it, and if so, when and how?   The attack may come as you are getting into your parked car, or it may come when you are already in the car, perhaps sitting at a stop light.  Should you respond differently in those situations?

Carjacking is a fast growing crime, though exact figures are hard to come by, because some police jurisdictions record these as car thefts, while others call them armed robberies.  The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports have no single category for them, either.  Informal indications are that carjacking are on the rise, partly because security systems in most cars make it too hard for car thieves to take an unoccupied car; the easiest way to steal a car is to get the owner to hand over the keys.  Other carjackings are for the purpose of taking a person along with a car

Horror stories, the real kind, are all too easy to find in the news.  Just a few weeks ago, a 23-year-old Virginia woman, Ginger Hayes, was abducted from a drugstore parking lot where she was changing her baby’s diaper in the back seat while her husband and brother were in the store buying drinks.  A man pushed her into the car and drove away.  Despite very rapid reporting of the crime, by both her husband and an eyewitness, the police were initially unable to locate the vehicle.  The carjacker withdrew money from an ATM using Ginger’s card, and made a purchase at a Food Lion store, then drove his captives to a farm field where he beat Ginger repeatedly with a tire rim and then left her and baby Nicholas.  Ginger died within an hour; Nicholas survived nearly 10 hours in the sun in 90 degree weather before he was rescued and his mother’s body found.

Carjacking is the taking of a vehicle by force (or threat of force) while the victim is in or around the vehicle.  It is quite likely that your carjacker will have a gun or a knife to help him make his demands.

One crime-related telephone survey indicated that, of all carjacking attempts, about half succeeded.  This is good news – if half of the attempts are foiled by folks without any special training or preparation, you can greatly increase the odds in your favor by making plans in advance for what you would do, or not do.

Two of the world’s experts on carjacking countermeasures are Ed Lovette, an instructor at the Gryphon Group International, a security organization based in Melbourne, Florida, and John Peterson, the Senior Instructor at the SIGARMS Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.  Ed recently gave a class on carjacking countermeasures at the annual meeting of the American Women’s Self Defense Association (AWSDA) which was hosted at SIG, and John has published material on this subject in the Journal of Counterterrorism and Security International.  Much of the material in this article is drawn from these sources.

Prevention, prevention, prevention.  As with any crime, a little advance preparation to make yourself a less attractive target goes a long way toward reducing your chances of having to deal with a crime in progress.  Here are some of the things you can do to help prevent a carjacking . . .

Pay attention to where you park.  In a parking lot, back into your space so that you will be ready to drive away quickly.  Try to park at the end of a row of cars, so you will have more potential routes to leave the area.  Park as near as possible to a busy area, such as a mall entrance, rather than in a remote area of the lot.  Parking near a light is a good idea if you are going to be returning to your car after dark.  Finally, take a good look around the area before you unlock the door and get out of your car.  Once out of the car, get the doors locked and the keys in your purse or bag quickly.

When you return to your parked car, use a shopping cart for groceries, even if you could have carried the bags.  The cart can be used as a barrier between you and anyone who tries to approach you, and can be shoved to distract them.  More importantly, it frees your hands so that you can manage your keys and, if needed, your weapons, whether they be Persuader, pepper spray (OC spray) or a gun.

As you approach your car, keep your head up, and look around.  Is there anyone loitering around, without any obvious purpose?  Most people in a parking or shopping area are going somewhere or doing something specific; just standing around is not “normal” activity.  As you look around, you should be looking for people, of course, but you can also be looking for the places near your car to take cover if you need it.  That might be another car, or a concrete pillar, or a corner of a building – anything that can be a temporary emergency destination if you need one.

Don’t just look, listen, too.  Especially when you have to put your eyes on a specific task such as getting the key into the lock, listen for the sound of footsteps or anything else out of the ordinary that may alert you.  And remember to pay attention to your “gut feeling” that you are being watched. or that something just “feels wrong” about the situation even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is.  If you sense that something is not right, don’t continue toward your car.  Go back to a place where there are other people.

Assuming that you nobody seems to be acting strange, approach your car from the passenger side.  This gives you the chance to glance around it, and to walk around it, looking in the car’s interior, front and back, before you start to get in.

If you have packages and perhaps a child, there’s a strong tendency to shift all of your focus to them as you start getting them into the car.  Fight this!  You need to be aware of whether anyone is approaching you.  Get in the habit of glancing up and around just before, and just after, you put anything, or anyone, in the car.

If you have nothing in your hands, or if you are left-handed and are carrying something in your right hand, you might want to open the driver’s door with your left hand.  That lets you face the back of the car as you open the door, which is where lurkers are likely to have placed themselves.

Once in the car, don’t just sit there.  This isn’t the time to organize your shopping receipts, pull out a map, or carry on an extended conversation with your toddler.

Which should you do first, lock the door, or start the car?  If you are lucky enough to have a car that automatically locks the doors when in gear, you don’t have to answer that question, but for the rest of us, the answer is, “It depends.”  Normally, it is best to lock the doors, so that someone trying to get in won’t have a chance.  However, if you are aware of a potential threat that is still far enough away, and you can get your car moving fast very quickly, you don’t need to take that extra second or so to lock the doors before you pull out.

So, the usual sequence is:

  1. Lock the doors.
  2. Start the car and put it in gear.
  3. Pull out of the parking space.
  4. Belt yourself in as soon as you have reached a place where you can safely stop for a moment, or are going very slowly.

Why not put your seatbelt on before you pull out of the space?  Because, if something happens, you may need to get out of the car in a hurry.  For example, if someone gets to the passenger door before you can lock it, and he gets into the passenger seat, perhaps with a weapon, your best move (assuming you are alone in a the car) is to open your door and skedaddle as fast as possible to that preplanned cover, leaving the keys in the car and yelling something like, “Take the car, it’s all yours!”

What if you have OC  spray handy?  This can be a great weapon, as no carjacker is going to be able to drive after taking a good solid hit of pepper spray, and OC is easy to deploy against multiple opponents, if your carjacker comes with friends.  But OC is a good option only if the carjacker is outside the car, still 7-12 feet away.  OC sprayed at very close distances, such as inside a car, is not going to take effect as fast or as powerfully as at the recommended distances.

What about your gun, if you have one? From Ed Lovette at Gryphon: “If you are in a vehicle and you are armed, as long as the vehicle is mobile and you have running room, the car is your primary weapon.  If you are not in the car, or the car is disabled or blocked, or you don’t have time to get the key in the ignition, then the handgun becomes an option.”

In some states, it is lawful to protect a car with lethal force, but in most it is not.  Are you going to know which kind of state you are in on vacation, or your next business trip?  Best thing is to plan NOT to use your gun to protect your car, but only to protect yourself and your family.

Have your priorities straight.  No matter how much you love or need your car, it isn’t worth your life.  Make up your mind that you will give up your car, if necessary.  Make up your mind that you will not go anywhere with the carjacker, and most of all, make up your mind that you won’t allow him to take your child!

Should you believe him if he says he wants you to come with him so you can get money from an ATM?  That is a common combination crime, carjacking plus forcing the victim to withdraw money from an ATM, but there’s no assurance that the crime will end there.  One possible response to a demand for money could be “I was at the ATM earlier today, and got my limit in cash.  It is all in my purse.  You can have it.”  Throw your purse into the car, or some direction away from your child, so that he will have to take some attention off you to get your money.  Whether he believes that you have maxed out your daily withdrawal limit or not, he may be satisfied with cash in hand rather than continuing to try to force you.

What if someone manages to get in the passenger side of your car while it is stopped, and you can’t just leave because there is a child in the back seat?  He probably has a weapon, and is demanding that you drive somewhere.  Then you have the choice of either telling him that he can have the car but you will take your child and leave, or fighting.  If you choose to fight, one way to get started is to turn with your back to the car door, bring your legs up, and start kicking violently and continuously.  If you can reach for a weapon at the same time, this might be a good time to do so, but it is quite possible that the unexpected and violent counterattack will force him out of the car.

Remember, just because someone has a weapon doesn’t mean that he is willing to use it at that moment, especially if his plan was to use the weapon only to frighten you into compliance with his demands.

If you decide to talk your way out, how, exactly, should you do that?  From Gryphon Group, here are some very specific instructions on what to do if you are in the car with your kids and an armed person wants your car:

  1. Don’t make any sudden moves.  Try to speak calmly and firmly.
  2. Tell him what you are going to do, for example, “I’m going to unfasten my seatbelt and then get my baby from the back seat.”
  3. Tell him you are complying with his demands (“The car is yours.  You can have it.”)
  4. Tell him you are taking your child with you.
  5. Don’t ask if that is ok, and don’t wait for him to agree.  After you have told him what you will do, just do it.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 for everything you do.  Keep telling him what you are going to do, and just do it until you and your children are safely out of the car.

Don’t hand over the keys.  Leave them in the ignition, or drop them on the passenger side floor (assuming the attacker is outside the driver’s side), or throw them some distance from the car.  You want him to have access to the keys, but not by any physical contact with you, and you want to throw a time-consuming change, however small, into his plans for a smooth operation.

Don’t wait for him to say that it is ok for you to unfasten your seatbelt, open the door, or get the kids.  Just tell him that you are going to do those things, and then immediately do them.  Your goal is to separate yourself and your children from the car as fast as possible, so that he can take the car.

Once you and your children are out of the car, head for the cover that you had previously identified.  Then you can decide whether to stay there, access your weapon, or move to another location.

If you are in your car when a situation erupts, try to keep you car moving.  Don’t hesitate to drive away from a carjacker, even if he has a gun.  If someone is shooting at you, it is much harder to hit a moving target, even a BIG moving target, than a stationary one.   Also, a bullet that hits a moving car is much less likely to penetrate than a bullet that hits a stopped car.  You do NOT have to be moving very fast to get these benefits!  All of this indicates that, if you are under fire, you best course of action is, usually, to drive away, even if you are armed and could return fire.  Of course, you will make decisions at the moment based on the circumstances you find yourself in – no advice can be absolute in life-or-death situations.


Avoid, avoid, avoid.  Preventing a carjacking by advance preparation and awareness is much easier than getting out of trouble once it starts.

If you can’t avoid, try to drive away.

If you decide not to drive away, separate yourself from your car and keys (and money, if he demands it), so he can have the car.

If there are kids in the car, tell him so; he may be so hyped up he didn’t even notice them.

Use your weapon(s) only as a last resort and only if you or your family members are in immediate and unavoidable danger of death or kidnapping.

Did you notice that any response with a gun is a minor part of all the scenarios we’ve considered?  You aren’t likely to be able to get the drop on someone who is already pointing a gun at you, so drawing your gun and shooting him, even if you try to distract him first, is unlikely to be a winning strategy.  If, however, he doesn’t want just the car but wants you or your child, too, that is another matter entirely.  Then it is time to do whatever you have to do to avoid going along with his plan.  Don’t let Ginger Hayes’ story become yours.

This article first appeared in the Nov-Dec 2001 issue of Women&Guns magazine. Copyright (c) 2001 Lyn Bates