• Center for Problem oriented policing

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Guide No. 75 (2023)

by Shanhe Jiang, Marcus Felson, Michael S. Scott, and Kathryn Tapp

The Problem of Carjacking

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of carjacking† and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local carjacking problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

† Carjacking is alternatively termed “vehicle hijacking.”

Carjacking is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to robbery, vehicle theft and other crimes involving vehicles. This guide is limited to addressing the harms created by carjacking. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which require separate analysis, include: 

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.asu.edu

General Description of the Problem 

Carjacking refers to “a completed or attempted theft in which a motor vehicle is taken by force or threat of force.”[1], ‡ In the United States, it is classified by the FBI as a type of robbery§, but is also similar in some respects to vehicle theft. As is the case with other property crimes, some proportion of reported carjackings are falsely reported as part of an insurance-fraud scheme.[2]

‡ The U.S. federal statute governing carjacking was enacted in 1992 as the Anti-Car Theft Act, now codified as 18 U.S.C. § 2119. 

§ This is the case in both its Uniform Crime Reports and National Incident-Based Reporting System.

Even though carjacking causes more fear than many other crimes and has become a major problem, we have limited research knowledge about carjackings and effective ways to prevent them.[3], §§

§§ One explanation for the limited research is that the FBI’s crime recording systems––the Uniform Crime Reports and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)––do not categorize carjacking separately. Although the National Crime Victimization Survey gathered carjacking data for a few years, it has not done so consistently to allow for longer-trend analysis.

The carjacking rate in the United States, measured by the number of attempted and completed carjackings per 100,000 population, was, on average, 21 from 1993 to 1997, dropping to 13 in the period from 1998 to 2002.[4] From 1993 to 2002, on average, there were approximately 38,000 carjacking victimizations annually,[5] which accounted for less than 10% of overall annual robberies (more than 400, 000).[6] From 2007 to 2016,† there were 41,424 completed carjackings reported in NIBRS, representing 5.5% of its total robberies.[7] The U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey does not currently inquire about carjacking, specifically. In 2020, during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were scattered reports that while some crime types decreased, carjackings increased.[8] Although it seemed plausible that as vehicles became harder to steal by theft due to newer anti-theft technology, some offenders would resort to carjacking[9], longer-term trends reveal that nonfatal carjacking rates have decreased by 78% from 1995 to 2021.[10] 

† NIBRS data were not nationally representative. In 2016, only about one-third of all law enforcement agencies that participated in the UCR Program reported crime data via NIBRS.

Harms Caused by Carjacking 

Carjackings, although comprising only a small proportion of overall robberies, generate more collective fear than many other crimes.[11] The crime can be quite sudden, quick and violent. It’s hard to predict and prevent a carjacking. Carjackers are typically armed. Because carjacking entails the use or threat to use force, the police responses to reported carjackings are more likely to lead to vehicle pursuits and armed confrontations with suspects, thereby increasing risks of harm to officers, suspects and innocent bystanders. A carjacking victim suffers, at a minimum, the temporary loss of the vehicle and any property in it and can suffer serious or fatal bodily injuries. Fatal carjackings and children kidnapped in carjackings tend to generate media coverage, which can lead the public to overestimate the risk of these outcomes.[12], ‡ Among nonfatal carjacking victims, about three-fourths face an armed offender; one-fourth are injured, including 9% with serious injuries; 14% are treated in hospital emergency departments; and 1% are hospitalized.[13] The median value of vehicles carjacked is approximately $7,300.[14] Most carjacking victims either did not have vehicle insurance or did not report the crime to their insurance company.[15] Once a carjacking is reported, the victim often sees higher vehicle insurance premiums. 

‡ It is estimated that on average, about 27 homicides involved carjacking each year in the United States. Eight infants were reported to be kidnapped in carjackings for one year (Klaus, 1999).

Factors Contributing to Carjacking 

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Carjacking Methods 

Carjacking is highly opportunistic.[16] Carjackers’ success depends on their awareness of suddenly emerging opportunities and the act tends to occur quickly.[17] Felson et al. summarized the findings of other carjacking researchers as follows: 

 …[C]arjackings are uniquely dependent on immediate action: The opportunity is gone in a few seconds, affording no time for hesitation. Carjackings may establish a sense of normalcy to lull the victim before the sudden attack commences. For example, the offender asks the victim for the time, to help light a cigarette, or use other methods to create a false sense of security. Carjackings usually do not involve advanced planning prior to the very short time gap between noticing the opportunity and seizing the moment. …‘situational awareness’ is essential for carjackers to act when the opportunity suddenly appears. Sometimes the offender finds a moment when the victim is distracted. Offenders may also use a blitz method, with several accomplices and/or firearms allowing sudden seizure of control.[18]

Carjacking attempts and successful completion are a result of multiple factors.[19] Most carjackings involve a weapon: typically, firearms or knives.[20] When there are more offenders than victims present, a carjacking is more likely to succeed.[21] Consequently, carjacking tends to be a group crime, involving planning and calculation,[22] although, most carjackers do not extensively case their victims because carjacking opportunities rapidly change.[23] 

To succeed, a carjacker needs to prevent the victim from using their own vehicle as a resistance device, such as by making the victim fear that they will be killed if they resist.[24] Although victim resistance can prevent the vehicle from being stolen, it increases the victim’s risk of injury.[25] 

Characteristics of Carjackers and Their Victims 

As is the case for most crime types, carjackers tend to be male and young, typically under age 29.[26] In some cities, young teens are increasingly committing carjacking.[27] Carjackers’ gender is even more concentrated: national and regional surveys show that at least 87% of all carjackings were committed by male offenders.[28] 

Carjacking victims tend to be older than carjackers, although frequent carjacking victims tend to be young. Some studies have shown that older or female drivers tend to be targeted.[29] Males and females appear to be equally likely to be nonfatal carjacking victims, but, overall, most carjacking victims are male.[30]


Carjacking is more likely to occur in urban than in suburban or rural areas.[31] The national carjacking victimization rate for urban residents is 10 times higher than that of rural residents (3.1 per 10,000 population compared to 0.3) and nearly 2 times higher than that of suburban residents (3.1 compared to 1.7). 

Carjackings are most likely to take place at or near the victim's home.[32], § More than 70% of carjackings occurred either in an open area (e.g., on street); adjacent to a public transportation hub (e.g., a bus, subway, or train station, or an airport); in parking lots or garages; or near commercial places, such as gas stations, stores, restaurants, bars, or office buildings.[33], §§  High-risk locations can vary across cities: an analysis of carjackings in Detroit, Michigan,[34] revealed that carjacking was especially likely to occur within one block of the following types of places:

  • service stations
  • convenience/grocery/liquor stores
  • bus stops (where carjackers can wait for opportunities without suspicion)
  • drug markets
  • restaurants
  • demolished building sites

§ Although rare, some carjackings occur as part of home invasion robberies (Young and Borzycki, 2008).

§§ The risk of carjackings per street kilometer is by far the greatest at gas stations (Felson et al., 2022). 

Keep in mind, though, that carjackings are relatively rare events that can occur any place where vehicles and pedestrians are near one another, so it likely will be difficult to find specific locations where carjackings commonly occur.

Time and Season 

Carjackings can occur at any time of the day, with some research finding that approximately two-thirds of carjackings in the United States occur at night[35] and other research finding that carjackings take place most frequently during the day when more cars are on the road.[36] The overall rate of completed carjackings is higher for day incidents than evening incidents.[37] 

Similarly, the research findings as to when carjackings occur is also mixed: some finding it more likely on Saturday and Sunday, and some finding weekdays to be more popular.[38] Cold-weather months (November and December in the United States) and hot-weather months (June, July and August in the United States) all have been shown to be high-risk months for carjacking.[39] Different months offer different crime opportunities: months that include heavy shopping (e.g., the winter holidays) brings many vehicles out in public, but so too do warm-weather months. 

Carjacking times seem to correspond with people’s routine activities (e.g., more free time on weekends, more shopping, travel, and parties during the holiday season) and with the natural environment (e.g., darkness reduces natural surveillance, warm weather encourages people to have more activities outside). 


Like other types of street offenders, carjackers are motivated by two forces: one is for money or other instrumental needs and the other is for social status or other expressive needs.[40] They can use a carjacked vehicle for committing some other crime,[41] escaping immediate danger,[42] converting to cash (e.g., for drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex;)[43], or for valuable parts and accessories to sell or install in offenders’ own vehicles.[44] For offenders working with organized auto theft rings, carjacking is preferred to theft because it assures that the ignition key will accompany the stolen vehicle and the vehicle will not be damaged.[45] Drive-by shootings or joyriding are also common motives for carjacking.[46] These types of carjackings are closely associated with urban street cultural norms, such as reprisal, being thrilled, showing off (or “flossing”), reputation, or maintaining honor.[47] Carjackers are variously highly rational and calculating for some carjackings, and highly impulsive for others.[48]

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