Security issue: Vehicle theft

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Vehicle with broken window from forced entry

Vehicle theft is the crime of theft, or attempt of theft of or from a motor vehicle (automobile, truck, bus, motorcycle, etc.).


This category includes both theft of and from vehicles, because the measures against it would be very alike from the viewpoint of an urban planner.

This category does not include: carjacking/joyriding, theft with access to keys, fraudulent theft, or opportunistic theft

Contributing circumstances

Known circumstances to influence the likelihood or effect of robbery are presented in the table below:

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Parking spaces near stores or manufacturing premises Increases likelihood of being selected a target Retailing and manufacturing premises have a much greater chance of falling victim to vehicle crime than domestic premises[1].
Lack of surveillance Decreases risk of detection. A low level of surveillance, particularly round-the-clock surveillance, decreases the perceived risk of detection for a perpetrator and thereby increases the attractiveness. For cars parked along the street, a high level of natural surveillance can significantly reduce the attractiveness of such cars for thieves.
Large, publicly accessible parkings increases attractiveness Larger parking facilities generally have higher theft rates than smaller facilities do[2]. This may be due to the fact that it is easier for thieves to find attractive targets here.
High levels of vehicle theft in the vicinity. Increases likelihood of targeting. Car thieves select targets typically several miles from their place of residence[3].
High levels of unemployment Increases likelihood of targetting High levels of unemployment are correlated with higher levels of property crime [4].
High expected levels of drug- or alcohol abuse Reduces inhibitions for crime The presence of regular abusers of alcohol or drugs has a strong correlation with the occurrence of robbery, often thought to be caused by the need for financing an addiction. Studies show that about 35% of all robbery is committed under the influence of alcohol[5].
Vehicles parked along road in residential area Increases vulnerability Studies have shown that cars parked along the street have a significantly larger risk of being stolen than vehicles parked in a garage or a car port.
Risk of Car Theft by Parking Location in England and Wales (1982-1994)[3]
Location Thefts per 100,000 cars per 24 hours
Home garage 2
Home carport/drive 40
Home street 117
Large amounts of passing traffic Increases visibility of target A large amount of traffic passing the vehicle means a large exposure to potential car thieves[3].
Multiple exits from the area Decreases likelihood of apprehension A car thief wants to have a fast exit route once the theft is done or he is discovered. Multiple exits increase the chance of a clean getaway[3].


Social impact

The social impact of vehicle theft varies and correlates with the way vehicles are stolen or damaged. We distinguish four types of vehicle theft:

  • Vehicle theft after burglary: before the car itself is stolen, the thieves first break into the house of the owner to get the key. In the Netherlands more than 7 percent of stolen vehicles are stolen after breaking into the house of the owner. The burglary in the home is a huge invasion of privacy and often has much more impact than a theft at a business place. It is , after all, and in the private domain.
  • Car theft in public space: each year, the majority of vehicles are stolen on the road ( 65 % ) or from the house of the owner ( 15 % ). This category of vehicle theft we call 'clean' car thefts.

The social impact of these 'non-violent' types of theft may be compared to the impact of burglary.

  • Home Jacking: we talk about home jacking when, in a home, office or other building the owner or occupant is instructed to handover the vehicle keys or the vehicle itself by use of violence or under threat of violence. In home jacking the occupant gets physically involved because of direct confrontation with the car thief (0,2 percent of the cases).
  • Car jacking is a form of vehicle theft involving violence or threat against the owner of the vehicle in public, in order to take the car keys and the vehicle. This type of theft may be facilitated by the fact that the cars are getting more secure , whereby car thieves aim directly to the owner. Car jacking is a group activity, in most cases, the victim is overpowered by multiple perpetrators and forced to issue car key and car. The violence used in car jacking ranges from threat with firearms and knifes to physical violence, such as beating and punches in the face, kicking or pushing with force from the car.

The social impact of these more violent types of vehicle theft may be compared with the impact of raid and robbery, hence, it can lead to psychological distress, including fear, anger and depression. The likelihood of psychological distress and their social consequences increases with the level of violence encountered by the victims.

Economic impact

Although vehicle theft is not as intrusive as violent crime, it is both quite common and costly for society.[6] The direct costs of vehicle theft are for about 16% attributable to costs in anticipation of vehicle theft (e.g. anti-vehicle theft measures and insurance administration). Although this is considerable, the major part (almost 80% of the costs of vehicle theft are attributable to the consequence of vehicle theft, e.g. the value of the stolen vehicles (±45%), physical and emotional impact on victims (±15%), the costs of property recovered (±10%). The remaining 4% can be attributed to the costs in response of crime by the public authorities (policing and the criminal justice system)[7]. The average cost per event is with £4,000 (2003 prices), slightly higher than the average costs of a burglary[7]. This is mostly the result of higher preventive expenditures and the average value of the stolen vehicle and recovered vehicles.

Vehicle theft does not just create direct costs, but also creates secondary economic effects on society-at-large. First of all, victims of vehicle theft have to deal with opportunity costs as a result of the necessary administrative activities and a temporary unavailability of their vehicle (including companies who own transport vans or trucks), which could lead to a reduction in working time hours.[8] Secondly, there is the opportunity costs of police and other public services. On top of that, there will be some very minor effects for the market for vehicles since there will be more demand for new vehicles and more supply of second-hand vehicles. In total, however, the secondary economic effects of vehicle theft are not that significant in comparison to for instance burglary of a dwelling. Theft from a vehicle that leaves broken glass, on the other hand, can have more negative effects on the neighbourhood since it negatively influences the perception of security for people living in the neighbourhood.

Security measures mitigate the economic costs of vehicle theft, but also demand investment in time and money (which are quite significant compared to other types of property crime such as burglary). In general, though, standard anti-vehicle theft measures make sense from a social-economic point of view[8]. Note, however, that since most victims are insured for vehicle theft, some experts argue that there should be "government-mandated standards" of security applied to all vehicles because an individual incentive is lacking[8]. One has to bear in mind, however, that vehicle thieves will adapt quickly to preventive security measures in accordance with the the economics of criminal behaviour, including how to deal with immobilisers and VIN numbers[9].

Mobility impact

Vehicle theft is more likely to occur in areas where the thief is well-known in order to be able to flee quickly. Therefore, as for robbery, the risk will be reduced when there are few possibilities to flee and when accessibility of the area is bad.

The police can chase a vehicle thief by car or even by helicopter. A helicopter has a better vantage point of the streets and of the person fleeing and can see and go everywhere and give instructions to the police in the car on the ground

An anti-theft gps tracking device can be placed in a car in order to locate the car after robbery.

As soon as a car is stolen, the license plate will be registered as belonging to a stolen car in the national registry and in the Schengen Information System. Currently, this registry can take up to 5 days. In the Netherlands, a test has been started to reduce this time to only 2 hours [[1]]. Another way of detecting if a car has been stolen is to check the chassis inscription.

Safety impact

As car theft happens in absence of the owner, there is little safety risk involved with this crime.


Potential measures that can mitigate the likelihood or impact of vehicle theft and that can be taken or influenced by urban planners include:

  • Access control to parkings
  • Directing traffic flows to minimize passing traffic
  • Assuring good conditions for surveillance, either natural or by dedicated observers to parked vehicles
  • Assuring the conditions for fast reaction of intervention forces
  • Target removal by minimizing parking facilities that are most likely to suffer from vehicle theft, such as providing monitored parking garages instead of unmonitored parking lots, or designing residential areas with car ports or garages instead of parking along the street.
  • Better law-enforcement tactics are also causing the reduction in car thefts. Police are using “bait cars” to catch regular car thieves. “Bait cars” have GPS tracking, remote engine-kill switches and video surveillance. Police are also using license-plate readers. A license-plate reader scans hundreds of plates to spot stolen cars.[10]

Footnotes and references

  1. Mirrlees-Black Curiona and Ross Alec, Crime against retail and manufacturing premises: findings from the 1994 Commercial Victimisation Survey, Home Office Research Study 146, copyright 1995, ISBN 1 85893 554 7
  2. Clarke Ronald V., Thefts of and From Cars in Parking Facilities, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series, Guide No. 10
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Keister Todd, Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Guide No. 46, February 2007
  4. Kepple NJ, Freisthler B., Exploring the ecological association between crime and medical marijuana dispensaries.,J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2012 Jul;73(4):523-30
  5. Greenfeld, Lawrence A, Alcohol and crime, an analysis of national data on the prevalence of alcohol involvement in crime, U,.S. Department of Justice, Office of justice Programs, April 5-7 1998, Washington D.C.
  6. In 2006, about one million vehicles got stolen in both the United States and in the European Union. Source: Barham, J. (2011): Europe’s Car Thieves Go Upscale. Security management.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Home Office, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate (2005): The economic and social costs of crime against individuals and households 2003/04.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 S. Field. (19??): Crime Prevention and the Costs of Auto Theft: An economic analysis. Home Office Research and Planning Unit.
  9. Barham, J. (2011).Europe's Car Thieves Go Upscale. Online: