The legal definition of hijacking is the theft of a motor vehicle where violence is used to obtain the vehicle.
In recent years Capetonians have been spared from this crime for the most part when compared to other areas of the country. The past two years however have seen a dramatic increase in the number of hijackings in and around Cape Town.
The common modus operandi is that the hijackers will lie in wait concealed by bushes, street corners or neighbours’ properties. As soon as the target gets out of the vehicle to open the gate or is stationary waiting for the gate to open or close, they move in quickly and at gunpoint or knifepoint force the owner from the car. They will then make off with the vehicle and anything inside.
This is a traumatic experience for anyone. How can you avoid being a victim, and what can you do if it happens to you?
As always, prevention starts with awareness, followed by mental preparation.
The essence of a hijacking is that they want your car, your keys and your cellphone. The extent of force that they will be willing to use to achieve this objective varies, but statistics show that using lethal force is common.
Target selection is based on a variety of factors including the specific type (or even make, model and year) of vehicle that they’re looking for. Research has shown a preference for certain models over others. Location also plays a role in the selection of a target. The ideal location is somewhere that the target is obliged to stop (such as gates) and has dim lighting and poor visibility as the hijacker will need somewhere to hide pending the target’s arrival. A reasonable escape route from the area also influences the hijacker’s choice of location.
To reduce the chances of you being chosen as an easy target, do the following:
• Ensure that you have ample lighting over the entrance to your property – make it bright and inviting to visitors while being a deterrent to hijackers.
• If you have sliding gates, ensure that they are set to their maximum speed for opening and closing.
• Be alert when approaching your property. If you see something suspicious, rather drive around the block again – particularly in rainy weather. If you’re still uneasy, call the SAPS or your security provider to come and look first before you risk going into the gates. Never assume that a ‘harmless bergie’ sleeping on the road next to your gate is exactly that!
• When approaching your gates, avoid getting too close. Give yourself room to manoeuvre if you need to. When you have the nose of the car right up at the gate, you’ve got nowhere to go.
• If your entrance is tight and you have to get right up to the gate then do so, but put the gears into reverse while you wait for it to open. A quick tap on the accelerator is all you will need to back out of trouble should someone approach you.
• Once you are inside the gates be aware that someone could run in behind you. The best way to be prepared for this is to reverse in. It will take a few seconds longer and possibly a three-point turn, but by driving to your entrance, then opening the gate with the remote, then driving past to line yourself up for a reverse park, you’re able to pass both sides of your gate and see what’s lurking in the bushes. Then, by reversing into your driveway, you’re keeping a close eye on what’s approaching you as you enter the property – this makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to surprise you!
• Reverse in enough for the gates to close and no further. Once they’re closed, reverse the rest of the way in. Should a hijacker still try his luck by running into your driveway, you can see him coming. He might be blinded by your headlights and he runs the risk of being run over if you panic. I accept that this is far from foolproof, but it beats driving straight into your driveway and being taken by surprise once you’re in the gates.
• If you’ve reversed your car in you can drive straight out when you next leave home. This makes it difficult for a hijacker because by not reversing out, you’re not giving them a full car length’s advantage while they’re hiding behind a wall.
These simple things could be enough to make you an unattractive prospect to a potential hijacker. They could also help you spot him before he starts his assault. The few seconds that this buys you will be enough to drive out of harm’s way or through it if necessary.
If you do become a victim of a hijacking, what can you do to raise your chances of survival? Firstly, keep your eyes down. Avoid direct eye contact with the hijacker. Speak slowly and clearly – their English may not be good and they’re nervous too. Tell them you’re going to do as they say. Ask before doing anything, for example: “Can I take my seatbelt off?” “Must I get out now?” This way they will know that you’re being compliant and will anticipate what you’re about to do and hopefully be more relaxed.
If they demand your wallet or cellphone, don’t object. Give it to them and tell them first that you’re going to reach for the item and where it is, for example: “I’m going to take my wallet out of my pocket.” Keep your head facing down throughout the ordeal.
Remember that your best chance of survival is with being compliant and unable to recognise them. As soon as the hijackers have left, alert the SAPS by calling your sector vehicle from the nearest phone and if you can’t reach them, then call 10111 (preferably both and in that order).
Being hijacked is extremely stressful and nerve-wracking. For this reason a close friend or relative should keep the following information for you:
• Your car make, model, year and registration
• Your blood type and family doctor’s contact details
• Your medical aid details.
After a hijacking (or an accident) you might be in a state where you can’t remember all these details – details that are essential if the police and other emergency services are to help you. Having a friend who has them could save your life.
Choose a friend whose telephone numbers you know by heart – it won’t help much if their number is stored on your cellphone which is on the way to the chop shop with your car!
For those who can’t afford a tracking system, I also suggest getting a cheap cellphone (about R200) with a pre-paid card and placing it in the boot of your car. Register the cellphone for the look-4-me service for a few rand a year and you’ve created your own cheap tracking system. Remember to check once a week that the battery is working, or have it wired to charge off the car.
If the car is stolen, you can log onto the look-4-me website and locate it to within a few hundred meters.
When driving, make it a habit to always maintain a car’s distance between yourself and the car in front of you. If someone jumps out of the car in front of you and tries to hijack you, you have space to go left or right around them. If you’re too close to the car in front of you, then you have nowhere to go.
Also, try to stay in the middle lane away from the curb when approaching a stop street or traffic light – this means that a hijacker has to come across the traffic to reach you. It doesn’t mean he won’t get to you, but it does mean that you’ll see him coming.
When approaching traffic lights that are red, slow your speed well in advance so that as far as possible you’re constantly moving. The less you stand stationary the lower the chance that someone can try to hijack you.
Most people will tell you that in areas such as Johannesburg, it’s common practice to treat quiet traffic lights as four-way stops after dark. It’s not legal, but it does make sense when done cautiously, and I would probably choose to do just that rather than come to a complete halt at a badly lit or unlit intersection in the dead of night.
Equally worrying in South Africa is the number of incidents where ‘lookalike’ police cars have stopped motorists and then hijacked them. Because the SAPS deploys quite a large fleet including unmarked detective vehicles, it can be tricky working out if you’re being stopped by a legitimate police vehicle or not.
If in doubt about the authenticity of a police vehicle and if you truly do fear for your safety, it could be an option in some areas of the country to put your hazards on and at a slow speed drive towards the nearest police station. Ideally one should always stop for a police vehicle, but in South Africa so many people have been hijacked by lookalikes that you may not want to take that risk.
If you can see it’s a marked police car with blue lights I would highly recommend complying with them – but as soon as you stop, phone a friend and tell them where you’re being pulled off the road. As a matter of course, if I’m stopped by a traffic cop or police officer, I immediately key in a friend’s number and dial them as soon as I stop. Then I’ll say something like “Officer, this is Witkoppen Road. Why are you stopping me?” It may be all that my friend hears, but it’s enough to make sure that someone else knows where I am and that I’m being stopped. If I’m asked for a bribe (it is Africa after all) it also puts someone else into the conversation so that I have a supporting witness.
In a perfect society you should never be asked for a bribe by a police or traffic officer. In Cape Town it’s a rare thing to happen – in Johannesburg not so. I don’t believe that people should be paying these bribes at all. It just perpetuates and aggravates the problem. My advice is always to say “No thank you, I’ll take the fine” and then if you have to appear in court in connection with the fine, use the opportunity to say that you were asked for a bribe and refused.
The only way we in South Africa can stand up to bribery and corruption in the police and traffic services is by not contributing to it and reporting those who ask for or demand it.