September 26th, 2021


White-Hot White Van Hysteria

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Dec. 18, 2019

White-Hot White Van Hysteria
White van hysteria has hit a new high with the mayor of Baltimore warning his citizens to not even park near a white van. People in at least one of these vehicles, he said, are coming to sex-traffic young women and sell their body parts.

Neither of these things is true, and when you examine them for half of a second, you can see they are pretty mutually exclusive. It's just a hairball of hysteria, mish-mashing all our fears into one back seat. This includes murder, trafficking, organ sales, vans, strangers and, of course, men.

The mayor fell for the story the same way waves of Americans seem to be doing. When asked the source of his information by the skeptical WBAL reporter Vanessa Herring, he said, "It's all over Facebook."

And that it is. All over. This incredibly thorough CNN report tracked down viral postings of the white van story and seems to have found the origin. On Nov. 13, a Baltimore resident posted about two men in a white van outside a gas station who would not stop staring at her.

She made the mental leap from "guys in a van" to "OMG, put it on Facebook," and boom! A match to the ever-ready tinder of terror. In a twist, the woman even wrote that she'd thought other people on social media were exaggerating when they posted about their terrifying white van encounters, but now that she had this terrifying (non)encounter of her own, she's a believer. Those two men outside the gas station were "part of a bigger story," she wrote. "I don't think they are two random guys."

For the record: I do. There were about half a million commercial vans sold in 2017 alone. The average vehicle lasts 10 years. There are highways full of guys in white vans all across America because that's what a whole lot of them drive for work. In the back are ... tools. Being freaked out by a van is like being freaked out by a pigeon.

For another reality check, I looked at the U.S. Department of Justice statistics about child kidnappings. The stats show that abductions are not going up and stranger abductions are incredibly rare.

Approximately nine minors (under age 18) were kidnapped and killed by strangers in 2011, in a country of about 74 million minors. Every single death of every single kid is tragic, obviously. But the "man in van = mayhem" equation is just not something we have to worry about. We can't always believe the things we see online or in home security ads, which are designed to induce fear.

When I interviewed David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Resource Center, he told me he had heard of no cases of a child being snatched from a parent in a public place and trafficked. Not one.

To sound reasonable, many people default to, "Well, even if this particular rumor isn't true, it's still a good reminder to pay attention to your surroundings." Which is true — when it comes to some surroundings.

Pay attention when crossing the street.

Pay attention when driving.

Pay attention when someone forwards you a post based on zero evidence and a whole lot of hooey. It's not a good deed to keep a baseless rumor going. It is more like pollution: spreading something foul that seeps inside us.

So try to refute the fear with facts. Or, at least, don't press share.

And to all you guys with white vans out there: Good luck.