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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Is car theft a thing of the past?

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Why is the technology to overcome electronic immobilisers (in existence and available for some years now) not widely used by car thieves?

The demise of vehicle crime

A recent (3 January 2016) Home Office report provides an interesting analysis of how new security measures have successfully cut car theft over the last 20 years.

Looking at the UK situation within an international perspective, “Reducing criminal opportunity: vehicle security and vehicle crime” examines how new security measures have drastically reduced the number of car thefts by over 80% over the last twenty years. The chart below shows the drop in vehicle theft according to both Police Recorded Crime and Crime Survey for England and Wales data:

car theft figures

Car thieves immobilised

The report attributes this significant drop in car theft to the introduction of a wave of security devices in the 1980s and 1990s including central locking, car alarms and, most importantly, electronic immobilisers.

The different rates at which immobilisers became a standard fixture on cars in different countries allowed the researchers – Nick Morgan, Oliver Shaw, Andy Feist and Christos Byron – to demonstrate that initially immobilisers have a limited impact on car crime as car thieves switch to unprotected older cars.

However, once immobilisers are fitted to a majority of cars, the drop in car crime is pronounced:

international car theft figures

What about the future?

Interestingly, the Home Office Study reports a 3% rise in police-recorded thefts of vehicles in the year to June 2015, the first rise in two decades. However, this appears to be mainly due to an increase in stolen scooters and motorcycles. Motorbike thefts fell in line with other crime from 1995 to 1999, but from 1999 numbers of thefts have been quite stable, while thefts of cars fell sharply. This was probably due to the fact that motorbikes are less well protected by security for the simple reason that they are easier to transport away from the scene without cracking the immobiliser.

The report concludes with an interesting unanswered question.

Why is the technology to overcome electronic immobilisers (in existence and available for some years now) not widely used by car thieves?

The authors are unable to answer this question but speculate about four possible reasons:

  1. There are simply fewer would-be offenders now – so even though the technology exists, it is not being used.
  2. The price, and the need to buy the technology in advance (i.e. to plan the theft), may raise the bar sufficiently to deter many opportunist car thieves. If high crime levels of the past have been predominantly about less-organised offenders exploiting straightforward opportunities that required little preparation or planning, then it is possible that the new methods of theft may have only a small impact on crime levels.
  3. Other types of security, like CCTV or number-plate recognition technology, continue to make vehicle theft unattractive to more opportunistic offenders.
  4. Word simply has not spread yet. This is the most worrying option – i.e. that once the knowledge of electronic compromise spreads from more seasoned offenders to more casual ones, thefts will start to rise.

If the last possible reason is, in fact the main one, car manufacturers will need to start developing a new wave of vehicle security to ensure they stay ahead of the technological curve.

 

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