And demographics deserve a lot of the credit, says Los Angeles security expert Chris McGoey. As thieves go to jail or retire, fewer young people are stepping into their shoes, he says.
Decreasing numbers of auto thefts is part of a larger pattern. Crime of all types is dropping in the United States (see the FBI's look at U.S. crime trends). No one knows for certain why.
Experts credit the reduction to all kinds of things, including the aging population, military deployments overseas (removing young people, who commit a lot of the crimes, from the streets), surveillance cameras on streets, better reform programs in prisons and smarter policing.
Good news for insurance rates
"More claims, higher costs; fewer claims, lower cost," Scafidi says. "It's not quite that simple," he adds, "but, generally, that's how it works."
There's even a savings for society, with fewer police hours devoted to auto theft, points out Bill Biondo, an expert in vehicles security technology for General Motors in Detroit.
And if you've ever had your car stolen, you'll know that higher premiums aren't the only way consumers pay. If you've got insurance, you still have to shell out to cover your policy's deductible, not to mention the incidentals, annoyances and lost time.
Thank advances in technologyA star player in the drive to cut auto thefts is technology. So much so that insurance companies offer driver discounts ranging from about 2% to 10% for cars with anti-theft devices such as keyless entry systems, car alarms and steering-wheel disablers like The Club. Some companies offer heftier discounts for installing the LoJack vehicle recovery system or GM's OnStar navigation system, which also lets police track a car when it's stolen.
Without question, McGoey says, "the newer cars are harder to steal."
Technologically sophisticated security measures can't totally prevent auto theft, Biondo says. But carmakers are trying to "layer" their vehicles with a range of precautionary technologies that render it considerably less attractive to thieves. Such measures include tinted glass and covered storage areas, to deter a thief's interest; sophisticated locking systems that make entry difficult; and loud alarms that announce vehicle intrusion.
Manufacturers also mark internal components with cars' vehicle identification numbers, or VINs, to discourage theft for parts and to help in recovering stolen vehicles and tracking down thieves.
Sometimes they do it electronically, too. "We VIN-lock our radio to the vehicle so the vehicle knows the radio by its VIN and vice versa," Biondo says. "It's not a (complete) prevention, because it can be reprogrammed, but it makes it more difficult."
2 big deterrents
All the standard car thief tricks -- hot-wiring the ignition, forcing the key cylinder and breaking into the steering column -- are useless.
Biondo says he's hearing from law-enforcement and theft investigators that it's the main thing contributing to the drop in thefts.
OnStar engine blocks and slowdowns. To envision where this is all going, consider OnStar, a navigation system built into most GM vehicles. The system has remote capabilities that company operators occasionally use in conjunction with police to stop or foil car theft by locating and disabling stolen cars.
Since 1996, when the technology was introduced, OnStar operators have located 35,000 stolen cars by tracking the signals emitted by the vehicles' GPS transponders. In 2009 and 2010 models, operators -- working with police -- have performed 700 "remote engine blocks," meaning that they've remotely stalled the engines of parked stolen cars so they can't be restarted.
This kill switch also can be used to power down a car while it's on the road, which officers sometimes request as they move in on a stolen vehicle, once there's no danger to surrounding traffic.
But lower-tech security devices have their devoted fans as well. McGoey, the Los Angeles security expert, eschews all the fancy security technology in favor of a brake lock, a fairly simple, inexpensive device (such as this one for $35). The lock is installed beneath the brake pedal and prevents it from being depressed.
What's next in theft-prevention technology? It's only a discussion at this point -- at GM, anyway -- but one promising avenue might be encrypting a vehicle's internal communications.
"The vehicle has very, very small microcomputers in it. Encrypting its own communications could cause further difficulty for those who would wish to penetrate the system," Biondo says.
Sounds like the recession is deepening for car thieves.
Published May 20, 2010