The A120 through Birchanger Wood may not be the wastelands of Mad Max, but attacks on cars driving down the arterial road are putting people’s lives in danger and generating a wave of fear within the community.

Drones have been deployed by the police, police patrols have been stepped up in the areas most affected and one resident has resorted to installing nighttime trail cameras and staked out Birchanger Wood to observe movements. Yet, no evidence has turned up to help identify the culprits, whose actions could end up killing someone. A teenager was arrested over the incidents and released without charge, but the attacks have not diminished.

Evidence collated on a spreadsheet by a local resident shows that anecdotal reports of attacks on moving cars – either by stones thrown at vehicles or pellets fired from a gun – have surged over the winter months of 2019/20. From October, the number of incidents totalled at least 45 leading to many cracked car windscreens. Essex Police said it had received 20 incidents between September and late February, but some drivers may not be reporting attacks or passing complaints to Herts Police.

* Figures only cover half the month of February

Theories have circulated as to the cause of the attacks. Some have suggested that windscreen chips are caused by loose stones in the road, perhaps left by construction trucks. However, the timing of the incidents shows that the peak times are in the afternoons, particularly on weekdays between 4pm and 7pm. While this may correspond with a higher volume of traffic during these hours, it does not explain why the number of incidents is not equally high during the morning rush hour, when there is also a significant volume of traffic.

Victims of the attacks have often reported that projectiles have been launched from the side of the road and some have said they witnessed the person responsible. The police have confirmed reports that ball-bearings have been used. The chips left on windscreens are large and drivers say there is a loud noise when projectiles hit.

The fact that the time of day when the highest number of incidents corresponds with after the school day ends has led many to assume that school children are responsible – although nine of the recorded attacks were carried out during the school day in term time. During one attack at 1pm on a school day, a victim wrote that they saw “two males standing in the woods just by the railroad bridge on the bypass-one holding the rifle and one with one arm out straightening and the other pulling something back, which made me think slingshot.”

Incidents are mostly focused on the A120 to the north of Bishop’s Stortford. The largest portion of attacks is occurring on the section of road between the Stansted and Birchanger roundabouts, particularly through Birchanger Wood. The section of the A120 between the Stansted roundabout and the Tesco store in Bishop’s Stortford is also a major focus.

Other areas include the A1250 past the Golf Club and towards the Nag’s Head, which is a more urban area with slower traffic speeds. A victim travelling on this road said there was “no other car on the road and I was only travelling 25 mph” – hardly a situation where a stone on the road would crack a windscreen. The A1184 from Tesco south to Thorley Street and the surrounding area have also seen some attacks, but far fewer than the A120.

Police claim incidents have dropped off as a result of increased patrols appear to be backed up by the lower number of complaints reported on social media. However, they have not diminished entirely and continue to pose a threat.

The upside is that the attacks have prompted closer co-operation and communication between Essex and Herts constabularies. Efforts are underway to ensure control room co-ordination and intelligence sharing, which should bolster efforts to deal with a number of other issues of anti-social behaviour.

The “Birchanger Badlands” along the Herts-Essex border have seen criminals take advantage of a grey area between police forces, such as prostitution at Birchanger Services and night-time drug dealing near the water tower at Heath Row. The legacy of the alarming attacks on cars could be greater security in this area and clamp down on other problems that blight local residents.