Toronto van attack latest incident of vehicle used as weapon

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 Toronto on Monday.

Cities increasingly looking for ways to place barriers between vehicles, pedestrians

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. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

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 Toronto on Monday.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Monday night that 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, said Candyce Kelshall, an adjunct professor with the terrorism, risk and security studies program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

She said there have been at least three incidents in Germany in recent years involving people who have driven cars into groups or buildings, but did not have any connection with ISIS militants or other terrorist organizations.

'Difficult thing to police'

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 said. "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.

The non-violent arrest of the Toronto van attack suspect is being praised by many. Video taken by witnesses shows the suspect apparently pulling a gun when confronted by a lone police officer. The officer is seen to get the suspect to stand down, drop what he's holding, and make the arrest without incident. 5:07

"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."

Cities are increasingly looking for ways to place barriers between vehicles and pedestrians, Wilner said.

In some places, garbage and fire trucks are being put in place at entrances to festivals or markets, he said.

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 agains the Boston Bruins.

'A criminal will try to take whatever they can'

Wilner said 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 said.

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.

People in Toronto are shocked by the van attack — many of them believing that such an incident would never happen in their city. Typically known as a safe and welcoming city, some Torontonians are now doubting that reputation. 3:50

"A criminal will try to take whatever they can, however they can," he said.

"Will it deter the determined attacker? Probably not."

Shaikh, who is from Toronto, said 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 said he has 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."