Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Murderer's Ride

Motor vehicles, terrorists, and the eyewitness mind.

When most people hear the words “eyewitness memory,” they immediately think about memory for suspects. Yet this is only a small part of the eyewitness world. Frequently, criminal investigations rely on eyewitness accounts of the weapons or vehicles used by those suspects as well.

My laboratory is still working on the arcane dynamics of eyewitness identification of the weapons used in homicides, and we’ll return to these issues in a future Forensic View; but one thing we’ve learned is that witness performance in this area is incredibly bad. Under ideal conditions, people usually identify a handgun correctly less than half the time, 10 minutes after they see it (see Sharps, 2017).

But of course, the average person tends to be relatively unfamiliar with firearms; perhaps that’s why people are so unsuccessful at this important eyewitness task. But, we’d think, people must be better at vehicle identification, at remembering the cars used by criminals and terrorists, than they are at remembering guns. We all drive cars, and we see them every day. So, we must be pretty good at identifying them. Right?

Er… that would be no. In an experiment I’ll describe more fully in our next Forensic View, my laboratory found that average people identify cars about half as well as they identify guns. Eyewitnesses identified vehicles less than 25% of the time on average, only ten minutes after they’d seen them.

This is more important than we might believe.

In 2002, two terrorists, the “Beltway Snipers,” attacked communities surrounding Washington, DC. They killed or wounded 13 people. Law enforcement came under tremendous pressure to stop these killings.

The problem was that there was practically no evidence. The weapon used was a fairly common rifle, and nobody had seen the snipers themselves. Therefore, reports of the vehicle used by the sniper were all-important.

There had been reports of a blue Chevy Caprice involved in the crimes. There had also been a report of a burgundy Chevy Caprice, but that’s hardly surprising; under low-light conditions, colors, especially dark colors, become hard to distinguish. But the Caprice reports, whatever the color, were swamped and ignored in the wake of a fairly detailed eyewitness report of a white box truck at the scene of one of the shootings.

The word spread. White box trucks, and whitish or cream-colored vans, were stopped and searched all over the area. This may just seem to be thorough policing; but it’s also true that every officer or trooper who was searching a bakery truck, or a locksmith’s van, was not available at that time to deal with the other demands that plague every law enforcement agency. It is practically axiomatic that LE agencies never have enough resources. An emergency like that created by the Beltway Snipers can stretch them to the breaking point.

Nevertheless, it makes sense that you’d search a spectrum of white to cream-colored vehicles; color perception and color description are neither precise nor consistent from one person to the next (see our next Forensic View). But why did police begin to investigate vans when the initial report was of a box truck?

In several news reports at the time, television journalists referred to the sniper vehicle as a “van.” Simple miscommunication may have been involved; but, and I’ve never seen this idea anywhere else, I suspect something slightly more subtle: specifically, regional differences in language use. In different parts of the U.S., vans and trucks are referred to idiosyncratically; there are places where a moving truck is typically called a moving van, and places where the word “van” is pretty much confined to minivans, whereas other van-like vehicles are termed “trucks.” Granted, the shootings were confined to the greater DC area and its surroundings; but journalists are a notoriously mobile lot, and the “van” and “truck” usages of their regions of origin may have played a part in this confusion. Certainly not conclusive, but probably a hypothesis worth investigating for future reference.

Anyway, there are an awful lot of small whitish vans and box trucks in every city. People can lock things up in them in a way they can’t in a pickup truck, and the light colors show the dirt less, which means that small businesses can wash them less often than they would with darker colors, saving money. These light-colored vehicles are popular and very common.

And practically every police officer in the region was stopping and searching every pale example of this very common vehicle type that could be found, while the Beltway Snipers tooled around in their blue Caprice, killing people.

In terms of vehicle identification, you can’t be much wronger than this, and wronger isn’t even a word.

Meanwhile, the snipers heard about the police fixation on white or cream-colored vans. They deliberately started setting up killings near such parked vehicles to increase confusion.

Never forget: The bad guys are on a learning curve too.

Eventually, the media heard about the blue Chevy Caprice, and broadcast the model and license number. A motorist named Donahue happened to hear the broadcast. In a series of coincidences that beggars description, Donahue drove a white van for his work, but also owned a blue Chevy Caprice! These facts gave him a wonderful prior cognitive framework, and he started looking deliberately for the Blue Caprice of Death. Continuing the amazing chain of coincidence, when Donahue pulled into a familiar rest stop, he spotted the snipers’ Caprice, license plate and all. And after some deeply confusing attempts on Donahue’s part to contact law enforcement, law enforcement came out and arrested the snipers.

The rest is legal history.

So, the Beltway Snipers were finally apprehended; but a weird set of coincidences was required for the arrest to happen at all. Not a series of events to inspire confidence in our abilities to make eyewitness sense of the vehicles used in crimes.

What is the psychological nature of vehicle identification, anyway? And what can we do about it?

We will address these questions in our next Forensic View.


Sharps, M.J. (2017) Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications.