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Walking through the parking lot that afternoon, I was sure I knew how to keep myself safe. I scanned my surroundings and knew I was alone; I kept away from the building as I turned the corner so I could see what was around it. I strode to the car and slipped the key in the lock.

Then I was attacked from behind.

He had emerged quietly from the van next to the car, and his arms were tight around my neck.

In this particular case, it had all been a drill; the 'attacker' was the assistant to the teacher of my women's self-defense class. But the point had been made; if I thought I had been practicing street smarts, I had been shown up, badly -- and if the attack had been real, I'd be dead.

Street smarts were the point of this last lesson. It was a shame that I was the only one who showed up for the final class, since this is information no woman should be without.

Here's what I learned:

Even if you always look in your car's windows to make sure no one is lying in wait for you there (and I did that), remember an attacker can be waiting in the car next to your driver's-side door. In the case I described, I think the van's windows were tinted. You may want to get into your car from the passenger's side.

Be aware that when you're getting into your car, your attention will be momentarily taken by the process of unlocking and opening your door. That's why I didn't hear the van door open, or see the man's reflection in my car window.

When you get into your car, immediately hit the button that locks all the car doors, and make sure the windows are closed. And if an attacker reaches in for you through an open window, close it on him. Then you can even throw the car into reverse, and don't discount the possibility of letting your car hit another parked car (preferably a large one) if an attacker has got hold of you or your car -- or is in your car! A collision may cause him to get away from you, or you to get away from him; make sure your seatbelt is unfastened if you want to try to flee.

If you are attacked or approached in or near your car, hit your car keychain's panic button; loud noise is your friend. (And remember to scream!)

Got a cell phone? Make a call -- or pretend you're making one! It may scare off a potential attacker who thinks you're calling the cops. If you don't have a cell yet, get one; there are very cheap phones and plans available for those who just need to make the occasional emergency call. Your life is worth it.

A life-or-death point: If an attacker is in your car and orders you to drive into the woods or somewhere else secluded, DON'T. It will be the last drive you ever take. Drive to the police station (try to know the location of police stations on your routes) or some other public location -- though not, if possible, a mall, as they have only spotty parking-lot security. Again, in an emergency like this, you may need to cause an accident to get attention, possibly at an intersection where you can turn in a way that causes another car to hit your car's door (the attacker's side, not yours!). Obviously, you don't want to hurt people other than the attacker if you do this. You can explain to the police later, and you can deal with car repairs and insurance later, but for now your primary responsibility is to keep yourself alive.

(Yes, the "accident" scenarios startled me too, when I first heard them, but when I thought about them they made sense.)

Another car-related note: Pay attention to the cars around and behind you to make sure you're not being followed. If you think you are, never drive your car home! This is another good time to make a beeline for the police station or another public, well-lighted place. You do not want a potential attacker to have any idea where you live.

When you are walking down a street or through an alley, where do you look? Down (as I have done in the past to make sure I don't trip)? Not a good idea! All around you? Better; the more you know about who and what is near you, the better and safer it is. But don't forget to look up, too; attackers can lurk overhead, on fire escapes, ladders on the side of buildings, and the like. And remember to keep clear of doorways so you can see who's there.

If you have to cut through an alley alone, pay attention not only to anyone around or behind you, but also to the litter; empties and drug paraphernalia can give you a clue about who frequents the alleyway. Also, realize that when you are emerging from the alley, you have a totally blind corner on both sides. If there's a gate at the alley's end, swing it fully open, and make sure you look particularly at the direction without the gate (which serves as a partial barrier).

If you're walking down the street and feel for any reason that you're not comfortable with who is around you, cross the street, or go into a store if possible. Never ignore your intuition; it's better to be wrong and safe than to miss a signal that might have kept you out of danger.

Here's another situation where I was more smug than I should have been. Strolling down the city street with my two teachers that warm afternoon, I thought I was aware enough of those around me. But then the teachers ordered me to turn around to them and tell me, without peeking, how many people had just passed me. Then they peppered me with questions: What was he wearing? How tall was he? Did he have facial hair? Was she white or black? Did she wear glasses? What cars went by?

I failed miserably, especially at first. They quizzed me several times, and I began to pick up more details about the people around me. The idea is that if you need to pick someone out of a police lineup, you need to be as specific as you can possibly be. What leaps out at you most about the person? Their long hair? Their Penn State sweatshirt? Their height or weight? Their bright pink jacket? Try practicing these observation skills wherever you go: down the street, at the mall, in the grocery store. It takes time to get good at this, or at least it does for me, because the idea is to make these observations after only brief eye contact with the person.

As for the cars, I completely missed that one car passed us several times; the teachers had to point that out. A car like that could just be lost -- but maybe not. In any case, it's good to be aware of things like this.

The idea, the teachers took care to say, is not to make women paranoid, but to make us careful, to make us realistic about the risks we face every time we step out alone. Never hesitate to ask for the company of someone you know if you don't want to walk, drive, or go to your car alone, day or night. If you're in a group walking, don't be the last person in line; have a man behind you if possible, because if you're behind everyone and are attacked, no one will know. Dress appropriately and conservatively for the setting; when you'll be alone walking, don't display jewelry, expensive or provocative clothes, accessories, or a lot of purchases that will red-flag you as a target.

Attack scenarios aren't pleasant for women to think about, but we need to think about them and prepare ourselves to cope with an outside world that isn't always safe. I highly recommend all women take a women's self-defense class to learn and practice real-world safety strategies; check with your local police department, karate studio, adult-education program and similar places to see what is available in your community. Read online tips (from reputable sources) and pass them along to the women and girls in your life.

Help keep yourself safe. Help keep your sisters safe. Know and practice your street smarts. For yourself or another woman, it's the best gift you can give.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 22nd, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)
It really is a good idea for women to learn these skills - thanks for sharing this.
Mar. 28th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this, Fudgelady. I actually never think about these kinds of things because I'm always so busy with twin toddlers. I was much more aware and street smart before the kids and I need to work on that - I'm a perfect target, really.

~ Huckdoll
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )