Fast food drive-throughs can be dangerous. Here’s how to deal with them safely.

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Some time back I read a story about a robbery in the drive-through lane of a fast food restaurant. No, it wasn’t a robbery of the restaurant — it was a robbery of the people sitting in line!

When you think about it, the drive through lane is a perfect spot for a robbery: you have people sitting in a confined space, unable to easily leave, with their wallets out and preoccupied with their stomachs. Sometimes their passengers serve as the preoccupation, especially if they’re children!

Most people at one time or another will find themselves in a restaurant drive-through. (I don’t eat much fast food, in fact I very rarely do. From time to time, though, even I find myself in line, getting a large unsweetened iced tea to drink while running errands.) It’s actually something of a wonder that robberies don’t happen more often. It’s always possible that they do, and they’ve become so common that they’re not newsworthy. The next time you’re at a drive through, watch your fellow food seekers; I’ll bet you see that they’re completely unaware of the position into which they’ve put themselves.

Don’t be like them.

There are several things you can do to enhance your safety at the drive through. The first is to recognize that you’re a sitting duck, so to speak. As you pull into the parking lot and make your way to the back of the restaurant, where the drive through lanes invariably begin, take a look around. Notice what kind of neighborhood borders the restaurant; many of them are in areas where you normally wouldn’t want to be after dark.

You’ll probably see lots of places where an enterprising crook could hide and pounce on an unwary driver. Foil his plans by making sure that all your doors are locked and that all your windows are rolled up. Deny him the ability to get to you.

As you enter the drive through lane, pay attention to the areas around the order kiosks. They’re often planted with shrubs where someone could hide, and the larger kiosks can even serve as cover for someone intent on taking your wallet or car.

Leave some room between you and the car in front of you. A good rule of thumb is to allow enough space that you can see the rear tires of the car in front of you. That leaves you enough maneuvering space to quickly turn the steering wheel and accelerate out of the line, away from danger.

When you get to the order kiosk roll down your window only and give your order quickly. The longer you spend ogling the menu, trying to decide between Meal Deal #1 and #3, the longer you’re exposed to potential danger. Place your order and then immediately roll your window back up.

During the wait to get to the payment and serving windows, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by handling your wallet or counting/arranging your money. Keep an eye out for anyone approaching your vehicle.

The space between the order kiosk and the first (payment) window is usually where people are most vulnerable. That space often has a number of places, such as large shrubs or garbage carrels, where criminals can hide. The cars going past usually have their windows down from placing their order, but with your window closed you can keep a watch on that area as you pass safely.

As you get up to the payment and delivery windows, get as close to the building as you can. Doing so reduces the space available for an attacker to operate, and as a consequence the space between the windows is the safest in the entire drive through.

After you’ve gotten your order, roll your window up and proceed quickly out of the drive through lane. If you need to stop to arrange your food or check your order, drive into the parking lot proper and quickly get your food out. If you have passengers, there is no need to stop — trust that they’ll find your bacon cheeseburger without onions for you!

Understanding that you’re in a vulnerable position in what may be a hostile area should guide your activities. The drive through lane can be a safe experience as long as you keep your head about you and don’t lapse into distracted habits. Pay attention to what you’re doing, and the biggest risk you’ll be taking is eating that food in the first place!

– Grant 

Photo: Derek Jensen (Tysto), Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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  1. Martin  January 1, 2017

    Also, many modern cars are programmed/ default to unlock all doors once the car is placed in “park”. This setting can be changed, or, just don’t put the car into park when at ATM or drive through lines.

  2. Will  December 19, 2016

    Most drive-thru lanes are now designed to keep you in it until you have passed the pickup window. Leaving early requires a truck with ground clearance, and even a 4×4 won’t climb brick divider walls, as some are equipped with.
    Robbery isn’t the only defensive situation to worry about in that lane. Many years ago, in one of those constrained lanes, I had the drunk/drugged passenger of a 4×4 behind me climb out and get in my face about holding up the line. At least I think that was his complaint! I was driving a mini pickup with a diesel, and left a car length between me and the car at the order box, so to allow the parties to hear. I rolled the window up, and he started pounding on it with his fist. I decided on pepper spray, which I had left on my other vehicle key ring. Reached over to the passenger floor and picked up a small bag, and set it on the seat. Things got quiet, and I saw him climbing back into the truck, and they backed out and left. Got my food, and proceeded to park on the other side of the small strip mall to eat. Summertime. Windows down. I hear: “That guy threatened me with a gun!”, and look over to see the same clown standing outside the 4×4 at the pickup window, pointing at me. I quickly left and ate while driving.
    It took me a while to figure out that the guy had a history of hassling people, and at least one person had picked up a bag and proceeded to produce a gun from the bag to dissuade him from his ill-considered actions. I DID have a gun inside a bag that was inside the bag I picked up. Since he didn’t break the window, he never got to see it, and I made no reference to it in any manner. I was returning from showing it to a friend. I think it was some work I had done on it, as he had an identical gun.
    Fortunately, I never had to use that pepper spray. I later did a test spray, and it had a perfume atomizer type spay pattern. Utterly worthless, and I suspect it was defective. Lesson learned. Always test a new pepper spray!
    BTW, this all happened at midnight on a Friday or Saturday.

    • Grant Cunningham  December 19, 2016

      Interesting story.

      BTW, I don’t know about your “most” assertion regarding confined drive-through lanes. Except for those instances where the confinement is natural, such as going between two buildings, I’ve never seen one. I’m sure they’re out there, but I wouldn’t say most of them are that way.

      • Will  December 19, 2016

        Ah. That’s interesting. I’ve been here in CA for almost 40 years, and that style seems to be universal now, in the SF/Bay Area. That incident happened in San Jose, over 20 years ago.

        I wonder if they went to that style when the restaurants started adding order speakers and pay windows prior to reaching the pick-up window. Vehicles butting into the line after the pay window could be a problem, perhaps. Never heard anything about the constrained style, so I’m guessing at this point.

  3. Spencer  December 19, 2016

    A redundant comment, true, but I thought it best to reiterate that the biggest hazard of fast junk food, Grant, is wrecking your health and shortening your lifespan.

  4. Spencer  December 19, 2016

    Yet another excellent reason not to patronize fast food joints. But the main concern, at least according to most medical experts, is fast food is very toxic and unhealthy. For proof of that take a good look at the people who regularly eat the stuff.


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