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Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.

Mary Ellen O'Toole Ph.D.

11 Tips for Staying Safe

Do you really know how to stay safe?

Staying safe is not about paranoia or about worrying that a dangerous person could come into your life at any moment.

It's also not about memorization and trying to teach yourself everything from how to escape being locked in the trunk of a car to how to react if someone sticks a knife to your throat.

And, finally, it's not about giving up and throwing caution to the wind because you think that safety comes at too high an emotional and physical cost.

You really can be safer, and so can your loved ones. All it takes is using your head rather than your gut. Here are 11 ways to be safer everywhere you go and still manage to live a complete, fulfilling, and carefree life in the process.

1. Study what people do, not how they make you feel. If someone is paying a lot of attention to your children, think about why. If a colleague drives erratically and runs red lights, think about what those driving behaviors might mean for how he treats other people and handles stressful situations in his life. If a girlfriend complains about all of her past lovers, consider what those complaints say about her. Read the behavior for signs into someone's personality and you will be able to spot dangerous people before it's too late.

2. When you are in over your head, consult someone who isn't. Every field is full of people who are highly trained, experienced, and talented. Consult them before making any decision, especially when you are out of your comfort zone.

3. Think long term. We tend to make regretful decisions when we are being impulsive. Don't just think about how a decision will affect you right now. Also think about the possible ramifications a week, a month, or a year down the road, and think about the ramifications for your loved ones, too.

4. Consider the risk. Are you taking on a potentially lethal risk in exchange for saving a little bit of time or money? For instance, are you about to run a red light so you can get to work more quickly? Or are you thinking of letting your elementary school aged child walk to school alone for the same reason? Or have you neglected to maintain your car so you can save some money? If you are taking on the risk of death in exchange for the benefit of saving money or time, slow down and reconsider if what you are about to do is really worth it. For instance, will you be able to live with yourself if your child got hit by a car or, worse yet, got kidnapped while alone and only blocks from home so you could get to work a little earlier?

5. Make sure you've thought of all of the likely scenarios. Many people worry about serial killers, but serial killers are rare. Few people consider the very common and very real dangers that they willingly embrace every day. What are you doing to minimize your risk of being in a car accident? Do you know if your children go to play dates in homes where guns are not properly stored and kept out of reach? Do you regularly accept rides from friends who take prescription medications that could interfere with their ability to drive?

6. Screen the people who are closest to you. Most people worry more about strangers than they worry about close friends, family and loved ones. Yet the people closest to you have more opportunity to hurt you than people who aren't as close. It's the people who are closest to you who have access to the key to your home, your computer passwords, and your deepest, most sensitive secrets.

7. Always minimize the risk whenever possible. Before making any decision, ask yourself, "Have I done all I can to protect myself? Is there anything else I could do to reduce risk and prevent future hardship? Do I have all the information I need to make this decision?"

8. Listen to your mother. Most of what we need to do to be safe in our homes and in our cars is straightforward, easy, cheap, well known, and requires little to no time to put into effect. Yet many people ignore these safety practices because they have a false sense of security. Lock your doors and windows. Don't text and drive. Vary your routine. Be aware of your surroundings. Don't become involved in a relationship with someone you think you can change.

9. Only drink with people you trust. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and reaction time. It also interferes with your ability to make decisions and to read people. It's the last thing you want in your system if a dangerous person is attempting to take advantage of you. The same is true for drugs, both legal and illegal.

10. Reduce your vulnerabilities. Dangerous people prey on people who are weak, lonely, sad, insecure, scared, and alone. If someone waltzes into your life during one of your hardest and lowest moments and seems to be the answer to all of your prayers, consider whether this person just might be too good to be true.

11. Consider someone's motives, not your discomfort. Dangerous people can know how to make you feel guilty, overwhelmed and pressed. For instance, con artists can spin tales that cause you to feel as if you are being overprotective and overly careful. If someone is putting the pressure on you to make a decision and to make it asap, consider that person's motives. Are they really being genuine or are they pressing you to do something that truly is not in your best interest?

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D., is a former FBI profiler and author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us (Hudson Street Press, 2011). She has tracked down, interviewed, or studied some of the world's most infamous criminals including the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway), the Serial Killer of Baton Rouge (Derrick Todd Lee), and the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski). She also worked the Columbine, Elizabeth Smart, Polly Klaas, and many other high-profile cases. You can learn more about her and her book at

The views and opinions expressed by Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole are not necessarily the views of the FBI.


About the Author

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D. was one of the FBI's senior profilers at the Behavioral Analysis Unit and is the author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us.