Belfast Telegraph

I'll never forget the fateful day I turned car-jacker

The steep rise in car crime reminds Frances Burscough of the day she ambushed a driver

The recent spate of car-jackings in Belfast is a worrying new trend for a number of reasons. That it is a crime which demands bare-faced audacity and nerves of steel is certainly one.

The risks involved in stealing a vehicle from a busy city-centre street, often in broad daylight or under bright street lights, suggests a careless desperation on the part of the criminal that does not always rear its ugly head in other types of property theft.

Furthermore, in order for it to succeed, the thief has to tackle and overcome his victim directly, so violence, or at least the threat of it, is almost certainly going to be a premeditated part of his MO.

But for me, the most alarming fact is that most of the victims to date have been women travelling alone.

As a single woman who regularly drives through the city centre on my own, I have followed the story with an increasing sense of trepidation.

What would I do if it happened to me is the obvious question that springs instantly to mind. And not for the reasons you think.

Although the PSNI has indicated a number of obvious measures that drivers can take to minimise their own risk (such as ensuring that the doors are locked, windows closed and valuables that might tempt unwanted attention are always kept out of sight), the advice as to what to do when faced with such an encounter is sketchy, to say the least.

All I know is that when shock, fear, threat and the element of surprise are combined, it can be impossible to predict how one might react.

And I do know this for a fact, from an incident which took place many years ago when I was a student which tested my own gut-reaction to a sudden, instantaneous and shocking threat.

It was a summer evening in the mid-1980s and my sister Marie and I were walking along a Manchester street from our shared student flat to use the telephone box 100 yards away.

At the corner of the street on the opposite side of the road was a popular pub and, as it was a warm evening, the place was busy and the beer garden packed with customers.

Suddenly, as we were directly opposite the car-park exit, a driver came out but, instead of turning his car right, he lost control of the wheel and ploughed straight across the road, directly into us, sending Marie flying into a brick wall and me pinned between the wall and the bonnet.

Of course, this was an accident and completely unintentional. But at that moment, the combination of shock, terror and the subsequent sudden rush of adrenaline sent me into a state of mind I'd never experienced before, or since. We were being attacked, that was all I knew, or could process. Marie was motionless on the pavement, I wrongly imagined she was dead and our attacker was there inside the car staring out (in shock himself) through the smashed windscreen.

They say that adrenalin can cause one of three reactions - 'fright, flight or fight'. Without even a moment's thought, I chose to fight.

Somehow, I to was able to free myself and scramble over the bonnet of the car to throw open the driver's door.

From what I remember, he was a tall, well-built adult, but still I leaned in, grabbed him by his shoulders and dragged him out of the car and onto the ground, whilst shouting threats and expletives at the top of my voice and hitting him with my clenched fists.

By this stage, on-lookers in the beer garden, who had witnessed the whole thing, had run across the road to help and eventually after a struggle they managed to pull me off him, even though I was seemingly intent on killing him with my bare hands.

But, as they did so, the driver jumped back into the car and sped off, fleeing from the scene in front of hundreds of witnesses.

As it turned out, the police caught him soon after and, as he was over the alcohol limit, he was charged. In the meantime, my sister and I were taken to hospital, both suffering from shock, bad bruising and assorted other injuries.

It took weeks to recover completely, especially from the psychological trauma, but it did teach me a fascinating lesson about what happens when faced with a sudden threat and survival instincts take over from rational thought.

In that case, I became both a victim and a car-jacker combined, in one fell swoop. Tales abounded for weeks in our neighbourhood of the petite girl who overpowered, dragged from a car and tried to beat the life out of a grown man and I have to say I was shocked myself when I heard the full account from witnesses at the police station.

Having gone through that unusual chain of events, at least I now have an idea how I might react under comparable circumstances. But I also know how disturbing and psychologically debilitating such an event can be.

I would hate to be tested again, because who knows how far I might go?

But I have a feeling that, if that deep-seated instinct of counter-attack and defence is ever unlocked again, it might be me on the wrong side of the headlines in the Belfast Telegraph.

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