Study reveals nearly 60% reduction in car thefts since 1991

According to a new analysis by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), FBI crime figures for 2014 reveal that 699,594 vehicles were reported stolen last year—a 58% reduction—from 1991, when vehicle theft reached an all-time high of nearly 1.7 million.

The NICB analysis compares annual statistics for thefts, population and vehicle registrations from 1960 through 2013. Over the years the single-vehicle family, which had been the norm in America, became the exception as families with multiple vehicles emerged. While in 1960 just over 74 million vehicles were registered across the nation, in 2012 registrations climbed to nearly 254 million. Registrations as a percentage of the population in 1960 stood around 41%, but in 2012 that figure nearly doubled to 80.8%

As the number of vehicles registered across America continued to climb, so did the number of the nation’s vehicle thefts. In 1960, there were approximately 328,000 vehicle thefts. In 1991—the peak year for auto thefts—this number reached 1,661,738. Theft rate was at a massive 659.01 per 100,000 people. Yet in 2013, despite an increase in population and registrations of over 60 million, thefts were down to 699,594, with a theft rate of 221.3—a decrease of 437.71 per 100,000 population.

For the average American, this means that the chances of having one’s vehicle stolen is statistically and significantly less now than at any other time since 1960. A recent Gallup poll reveals that 56% of Americans rarely or never worry about their cars being stolen today.

But over the years, auto theft was, at times, so pervasive that law enforcement agencies created specialized auto theft investigative units to deal with the problem. But preventing auto theft in the first place has always been the main challenge. Like any crime, once it occurs, the focus of law enforcement becomes recovering the vehicle verses prevention of theft. The best outcome was referred to as the “Triple Play,” which meant recovering the vehicle, arresting the thief and getting him convicted.

But the rise in vehicle thefts in previous decades also led to the creation of auto theft prevention authorities, statewide entities comprised of seasoned investigators, and funded by surcharges on auto insurance policies. Today, there are 14 of these auto theft prevention authorities in existence.

Since 1991 vehicle thefts have trended downward. From 1991 through 200 there was a 30% decline, and from 2000 to 2003 thefts rose a slightly, before falling each ear from 2004 to 2011—43% in a matter of eight years.

Several factors have contributed to the impressive decline over the last two decades, beginning with law enforcement efforts. Effective techniques were shared across law enforcement communities, and with the associations of public and private organizations, including the Internal Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) and the International Association of Special Investigation Units (IASIU), these numbers continued to decline.

Moreover, the insurance industry-supported National Automobile Theft Bureau, predecessor to NICB, was the home to the most experienced auto theft investigators since 1912. NATB/NICB has trained thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement officers over the last century, and today has special agents working alongside law enforcement counterparts in major cities across the nation.

This collaboration has been critical in attacking the vehicle theft problem, the report claims, and the relationships between these organizations have helped maintain impressive investigation results, despite the reduction in law enforcement staffing after the Great Recession. The relationships were mature and effective enough to exploit the single most important development for theft prevention and investigation: technological advancement.

Technology has positively influenced the prevalence of vehicle theft as well, whether it is deployed in the auto manufacturing process or obtained as an after-market option. Cars today are inherently more difficult to steal than ever before because of these evolving technological advances.

Technology is also law enforcement’s great equalizer, according to the study. Everything from remote surveillance cameras to automated license plate readers to “bait cars” have served to constantly and diligently produce effective results.

But new kinds of vehicle theft are emerging. With the introduction of transponder or “smart keys,” hotwiring a vehicle is no longer an option, but thieves have discovered new ways to illegally gain access to vehicles.

New methods of thievery include acquiring keys illegally, not returning rental vehicles, fraudulent financing and vehicle identification number switching.

Despite all of the good news regarding the decline in vehicle theft, no vehicle is fully theft proof. The NICB still urges vehicle owners to take caution to keep their vehicles safe.


By Hannah Bender

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