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Responses to the Problem of Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways

Your analysis of your particular problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following responses, drawing from a variety of research studies and police reports, provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. Several of these responses may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different approaches. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.)

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

While there are a number of effective responses to protect cars that are parked in parking lots or facilities, there are fewer clearly effective solutions that local police can implement to prevent thefts from residential streets and driveways. The streets on which cars are parked may be wide or narrow, treed or bare of vegetation, and lit or unlit; the risks of theft vary according to these environments. The fact that streets and the driveways attached to them are accessible to everyone makes cars very vulnerable. Probably the most effective response for car owners is not to park their cars in the open streets or driveways. Of course, many car owners, especially in more densely populated residential areas, are forced to park on the streets because they do not have garages or driveways.

The capacity to prevent theft of cars and their components at the local level is limited, especially when cars are parked on the street where they are easily accessible at any time of the day, with few obstacles in the way of the thief. The solution in large part depends on car manufacturers, who have begun in recent years to design cars that are much more secure from theft, and on car insurers, who have demanded that cars be designed with security as a major concern, just as they did previously in regard to car safety. 12 Obviously, at the local level, police must respond to the problem regardless of the level of security built into the cars in that vicinity.

Because there is little evaluative research available on this problem, it is uncertain how effective many of the responses described below are. They are nonetheless grounded in accepted crime prevention principles.

1. Promoting sales of cars with in-built security systems. The most effective techniques that have reduced car theft over the last three decades have been car security systems installed by manufacturers. These systems have included:
  • Steering column locks, which require an ignition key to unlock steering, have been shown as far back as 1970 to be effective in reducing car theft in Europe.13
  • Tracking systems, which use a transmitter within the car to send Global Positioning System (GPS) signals reporting the vehicle location to police, have been found effective in locating the stolen car. 14
  • Electronic immobilizers, which disable the electrical systems at several points, require the owner to authenticate with a transponder or PIN-code to start the car. Immobilizers have reduced car theft in Western Australia, where their installation has been mandated not only for newly manufactured cars but for older models as well.15
  • Car ID security measures include inscribing ID information on car parts or on cars themselves using micro-dot technologies, as well as automatic license plate recognition and VIN etching. There is some initial evidence that these new technologies may work.16

The majority of these effective responses for reducing thefts of cars require national or statewide action, which may be beyond the reach of your local agency.§

§ Reforms such as tightening vehicle registration rules require legislative or state agency action.

There are also some after-market security devices and systems that enjoy wide popularity. These include:

  • Mechanical barriers or locks where the steering wheel or brake pedal is "locked down" with a bar. These should be effective, especially as we know that steering column locks work, but there is no evaluative research available. The common sense advantage of these devices is that they are clearly visible to thieves who may prefer to steal a car that is unlocked and without any visible security system.
  • Sirens and pager alarms that signal a break-in to the owner. No evaluative research is available as to effectiveness.
  • Steering column collars that make access to the ignition electronics more difficult.

New technologies have shown promise in reducing car theft.17 The local police role with respect to car security systems might be to advocate their use by local car owners.

All of the above systems, whether manufacturer installed or added later, may be effective against theft of cars, but they will do little to prevent theft from cars.

As we have seen, cars are generally safer in driveways than parked on streets, but this will depend to some extent on the length of the driveway, shrubbery, lighting, and other factors that affect natural surveillance. Some preventive responses to protect driveways have been found effective—such as those that increase the risk to the offender in carrying out burglaries of single-family houses§—there is little research that evaluates the responses outlined below. Many of the examples reported are of promising programs, but because they were not scientifically evaluated it is difficult to rule out other explanations of reported effectiveness.

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 18, Burglary of Single-family Houses.

Many common sense techniques may be applied locally, though they may often depend on car owner and property owner action in order to implement them. In fact, some police agencies have found that community residents do not secure their personal property as well as they should. 18 Unsecured cars, cars with valuables left in plain view, poor house and street lighting, and vegetation or other features that provide concealment for thieves are commonplace. Thus, educating citizens often plays a central part in any prevention program adopted by a local police department.19

2. Partnering with business. Insurance companies bear much of the cost of thefts, and they may assist police at a local level by providing financial resources and reporting insurance fraud. Insurance companies are becoming more directly involved in crime prevention measures, which is part of a trend of increasing involvement on the part of businesses in combating crime. 20 Police in Colorado Springs (Colorado) were able to obtain unmarked cars for their auto-theft patrol units at no cost from automobile insurance companies.21 Special skills and techniques are needed in developing business partnerships.§

§ Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 5, Partnering with Businesses to Address Public Safety Problems, describes the steps police should take in developing productive relationships with businesses.

3. Promoting securely designed neighborhoods. Taking a long-term view, police can work with property developers and community planners to make sure that new residential developments are designed to create more "defensible space" where cars can be more safely parked and do not have to be parked on open streets.§§

§§ See the website of the International CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) Association at www.cpted.net for further information about the relationship between neighborhood design and crime.

4. Educating patrol officers about car theft patterns. Educating patrol officers as to the nature and extent of the car crime problem can aid in producing more arrests and alleviating public concerns. Information concerning the methods of operation of the thieves and the characteristics of offenders, if known, and any information concerning likely suspects, can be passed on to officers who patrol the problem area. Little scientific evidence exists to demonstrate the effectiveness of such training. However, common sense dictates that if officers can be educated about a problem with a minimum expenditure of resources, they should be more effective at countering the problem.
  • San Diego police instituted a one-day training session for its officers who were patrolling a district that had experienced more than 1,500 thefts from cars in one year—all within one square mile.22
  • The California Highway Patrol instituted a 40-hour Vehicle Theft Investigation Course, held nine times per year, as part of a multi-faceted effort to reduce car crime.23

Specific Responses to Reduce Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways

The specific responses are classified into three areas: security, education and enforcement. However all three are closely related, and it is likely that any program aimed at reducing thefts of and from cars will include responses from all three areas.


 Todd Keister

At this suburban home, the configuration of the house, the fencing and vegetation makes the vehicles observable only from the street. The motion light (on the garage) could help to deter a thief. Credit: Todd Keister


5. Improving lighting. Most thefts from cars in residential neighborhoods occur at night because this is when most cars are present in these communities and because of the anonymity that darkness provides. Improved street lighting and illumination of private property removes one of the thief's greatest allies—the cover of darkness. A study in the United Kingdom found that, of offenders who targeted cars in residential areas for theft, 80 percent limited their activities to the hours of darkness.24 Well-lit streets and homes increase the risk of detection and can act as a deterrent to would-be offenders. Research has demonstrated the positive effects of improved street lighting in reducing criminal activity.25
  • Working with local town or village officials to add additional street lighting to a problem location can serve to make criminals uncomfortable as they walk the streets looking for targets.§
  • Encouraging homeowners to install and utilize additional lighting around their homes can also deter thieves. Including this information in town newsletters and flyers, and during presentations at community meetings, are effective means of disseminating this information.

§ Henrico County, Virginia police (2001) coordinated a program in which homeowners shared the costs of additional street lighting to deter thefts from cars.

6. Removing vegetation and other cover. Thieves looking for quick and easy items to steal choose targets where the risk of detection and apprehension is low. Trees with low branches and high shrubs that obscure the view of the property from the street can provide a thief with concealment. Simple trimming or removal of such vegetation, or alteration of other structures that give cover to thieves, can deprive potential criminals of concealment.26 Tips regarding this subject can be included in flyers and presentations to citizens and groups.
 Todd Keister

Vegetation and carport structures such as those pictured here can provide cover for thieves. Encouraging property owners to remove or modify such features can help reduce the occurrence of theft. Credit: Todd Keister

Local public works or highway department officials may be able to aid in trimming low branches along the street or other vegetation in undeveloped areas to improve visibility and remove readily available concealment for thieves.27

Parking lot barriers such as these can serve as a method of ensuring access to ony authorized vehicles. They also create the appearance that they area is "secured" in some way. Credit: Todd Keister


7. Changing or restricting traffic patterns. A key concern for thieves is a rapid means of escape after the event or in the case of discovery. Thieves operating in cars can be discouraged if their potential escape routes are restricted. Dead-end streets afford only one means of ingress and egress, and they also increase the likelihood of drawing attention to any particular car entering the roadway. Streets can be closed to through-traffic by local ordinance, thereby creating both restricted traffic flow and a basis for officers to stop violators and discover perpetrators in the area. Closing streets and diverting traffic can be difficult and complicated and its long-term effects are yet to be evaluated.§

§ See Response Guide No. 2, Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime for a more detailed account of this response to a variety of problems.

8. Installing and monitoring video surveillance (CCTV). Video surveillance devices can provide a low-cost method (compared to using manpower) of providing 24-hour monitoring of streets. While these devices may not record a criminal act, they could potentially aid the police in identifying a car or known individual that is in the area where the crimes are occurring and who has no reasonable cause to be in such place. However, it is unclear under what circumstances and what specific locations video surveillance may be effective.28 Although the cameras provide 24-hour coverage, unless dozens are employed the odds of capturing a crime on video are negligible. It is likely that video surveillance in itself may be ineffective in identifying and apprehending offenders, depending on the locations, a fact that offenders quickly discover.29 However, new technologies for deciphering unusual movements in video images may increase the effectiveness and efficiency of these devices in the future.
 Todd Keister

The use of video surveillance cameras such as the one pictured above may serve as a visual deterrent to thieves and a reminder that someone may be watching or recording their activities. Credit: Todd Keister

The primary utility of video surveillance lies in increasing potential offenders' perceived risk of getting caught, rather than in real-time monitoring for identification or apprehension of offenders. Prominently posted signs indicating that the area is under surveillance, combined with media publicity, may enhance the effect of video surveillance, though evaluative research has produced mixed results. Finally, the installation of video cameras in some suburban neighborhoods may be opposed by local citizen groups because of their intrusiveness. Their acceptance would most likely depend on how serious the problem of theft of and from cars was in the neighborhood.§

§ For a comprehensive assessment of using video surveillance see Response Guide No. 4., Video Surveillance of Public Places.


9. Alerting car owners about theft problems and educating them about known risk factors and effective prevention. Car owners often do not secure their personal property as well as they should.30 Educating them on how to protect their cars and their contents has been used as part of an overall police program to reduce the thefts from cars.31, § The first step is to ensure that car owners and area residents are aware that a problem exists. When community members are aware of a car crime problem, they are more likely to take measures to secure their property. Effective information sharing networks may also help in spreading the word. Although some studies (most of which lack control groups) have suggested that owners may take more precautions in protecting their cars after an educational program,32 others suggest that publicity campaigns on their own are unlikely to be effective. A review of two studies conducted in the United Kingdom revealed no significant increase in the number of locked cars, following publicity campaigns.33 Thus, relying on a publicity campaign to solve the problem should only be one part of a larger overall effort to reduce car crime.§§ Some approaches to educating the public about car theft and theft from cars are:
  • Distributing information flyers and brochures to residences in areas experiencing thefts from cars34, §§§
  • Attending community meetings and making presentations regarding the nature and extent of the problem and steps vehicle owners can take to guard against theft
  • Erecting signs warning citizens parking in a shopping mall lot not to leave valuables in their vehicles35
  • Issuing press releases to newspapers, radio, and television media outlets
  • Holding press conferences along with local government officials and/or community groups
  • Placing notices in neighborhood and association newsletters
  • Placing notices on the windshields of unsecured vehicles and those with valuables in plain view, indicating that the vehicle was vulnerable to theft36
  • Enclosing information about insurance discounts available to customers who have anti-theft devices installed on their vehicles in regular insurance company mailings

§ See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, for further information about the effectiveness of publicity campaigns.

 §§ See the Hampshire Constabulary's (2004) Operation Cobra for an example of a comprehensive car crime publicity campaign. 

§§§ Vehicle theft prevention brochures are available online at no charge from the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org) as well as the National Insurance Crime Bureau (www.nicb.org).

Among the most important messages to convey to car owners are the following:

  • Vehicles are safer in a garage, more at risk in a driveway, and much more at risk on the street.
  • Buying a late model car will also ensure that modern security systems have been installed. Checking the ratings of most stolen models may also indicate to the owner what cars are at risk.
  • If car owners must park their cars on the street, advising the installation of after market security systems, especially those that are clearly visible to the thief, is probably better than nothing.


10. Increasing patrols. While the effectiveness of increased patrols as a means of deterring crime has not been established, there are some occasions where they may be useful, particularly when crime analysis data can demonstrate a clear pattern of thefts in certain locations and at certain times. Monitoring the results of intensive patrols is important, especially as they demand considerable police department resources. For this reason they are only of use as temporary solutions and do not solve the problem in the long term.
  • Unmarked patrol units can be used to monitor the area and to track and identify suspicious individuals in the neighborhood.
  • Coral Springs, Florida police utilized foot patrols and bicycle-mounted officers in their Forest Hills Initiative aimed at reducing thefts from cars. 37 These types of patrols not only increase the opportunity for police to discover offenders, but also improve their chances of apprehending these perpetrators who typically are on foot.
11. Prosecuting offenders. Working with local prosecutors to ensure aggressive prosecution and punishment may temporarily remove prolific offenders from the community and serve as a deterrent to others. Some argue that lack of prosecution results in low levels of fear of arrest among offenders. However, the British Home Office found that, among offenders involved in stealing cars, fear of apprehension and punishment was not a significant deterrent; though when asked if a new law mandating stiff penalties would deter them, over half of the thieves interviewed said that it would.38 One police agency in the United Kingdom devised a flyer to be given to auto theft offenders released on bail, which warned that they would be closely monitored, and advised them of the consequences of breaking the conditions of their release.39

12. Using "bait cars." Placing cars in plain view can provide a target for police to observe and catch offenders in the act. Maintaining cars under continuous surveillance is labor-intensive, although technological innovations such as GPS tracking and cars that automatically broadcast to patrol cars when they are broken into have made this easier. Some research has suggested that this type of program might be effective in reducing car crime.40 This response is more effective when it is known what type of car is most often targeted for theft, or when a particular area is experiencing a very high volume of thefts from cars. In British Columbia, Canada, police officials have formed a task force of seven provincial and local police agencies that utilize bait cars which, when stolen, immediately notify dispatchers and transmit their position via GPS tracking. Once police are in place behind the car, the engine is disabled with the click of a mouse button, allowing apprehension without the concern of a pursuit situation developing.41, § While this technique offers promise in reducing or eliminating high speed car chases, there is to date no research to demonstrate that this approach reduces or prevents car theft.

§ The IMPACT Team in British Columbia has launched a website (www.baitcar.com) where citizens can view in-car video of the thefts and subsequent arrests involving bait cars. The site includes crime prevention tips, and has generated thousands of daily hits. They have recently launched new initiatives including bait Alternative Terrain Vehicles, motorcycles, boats, and snowmobiles.

13. Tracking stolen goods. Local pawnshops and second-hand stores that trade in the most frequently stolen items, such as compact disks and car stereos, should be contacted directly. Not only can they be checked for any identifiable items (most states require pawn brokers to record the identity of all persons delivering property to them, and to show their records to the police upon demand), but police can also use the opportunity to educate store owners about the problem, enlist their aid, and/or warn them of the consequences of receiving stolen property.†
† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 57, Stolen Goods Markets for further information. 

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

 Todd Keister

Neighborhood Watch signs are ubiquitous in many suburban areas and are generally ineffective, as suggested by the graffiti on the sign. Credit: Todd Keister

14. Warning offenders. Most thieves are aware of the threat of apprehension and prosecution. Installing Neighborhood Watch signs or other devices to warn offenders generally does not act as a significant deterrent42 to experienced offenders who realize that detection and apprehension are unlikely, and that prosecution is even less likely.

15. Diverting youthful offenders. Diverting youthful offenders involved in car crime to programs designed to provide them with a positive outlet for their energies and interests is intended to discourage them from continuing to engage in crime. Unfortunately, most research has demonstrated that these programs have a limited or no effectiveness in reducing car-related crime. A review of diversion programs in the United Kingdom found no evidence for their effectiveness in reducing joyriding.43

Some examples of diversion programs aimed at young auto thieves are:

  • The youth and probation services in High Wycombe, United Kingdom initiated a program known as Skidz, that provides at-risk young people with free access to automotive mechanical training and driver education, as well as literacy and job training services.44
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Williams Lake, British Columbia discovered through their analysis that young First Nation males were responsible for the majority of the rampant auto theft in the area. Working with tribal leaders from the nearby reservation, they established programs for diversion of first offenders. In addition, they set up programs of educational and cultural exchange between members of the civilian and law enforcement communities of the city, and with the youth of the reservation. The result was a reduction in the car theft rate and improvement in overall relations between the two communities.45 This finding remains tentative however, because of lack of controls in the research design.
16. Implementing "Vehicle Watch" programs. This approach involves a voluntary agreement between the police and citizens who permit the police to stop their cars without cause if it is seen in operation during certain late-night hours. A special sticker identifies the car. A study in the United Kingdom suggests that the risk of theft can be reduced over the short term.46 However, the results are inconclusive,47 and other research using interviews with offenders indicates that these stickers can easily be defeated by covering them with another sticker or simply scraping them off. In another U.K. study of offender attitudes, 82 percent of car thieves stated they would not be deterred by cars carrying the vehicle watch sticker.48

A rear window decal indicates the vehicle owner grants permission to police to stop the vehicle if it is seen being operated during late night hours.

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