Tar Wheels…If You Want a Car – Buy It!

1930s Coupe: A 1930 coupe and pickup truck were some of the first vehicles ever stolen in the USA. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Well…This began as research about automobile starters.  My thoughts explored the path from the heavy engine crank to the simple plastic clicker. As often happens, however, the deeper I dug, the more off course I became! So… the piece on starters ended up about car theft! You explain it!  

The history of the automobile has a parallel track about folks who want a car but would rather short circuit ownership! – i.e., stealing one! The problem has plagued America since 1902, when the first recorded car theft occurred in Trenton, New Jersey.

Stealing transportation, however, is not a new thing. The renegade black hat horse thieves were just the forerunners of the 2022 car thief.

Cars of the first couple decades were complex machines that required over ten steps before ignition – not an easy task. Many owners employed chauffeurs – like the character Tom Branson on the acclaimed series Downton Abbey.

Despite the complexity of starting a car, auto theft by 1919 was rampant. The U.S. government reacted with the Dyer Act, also known as National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. This sweeping legislation dealt harsh punishment – up to ten years imprisonment – for transporting stolen vehicles over state lines. States also tightened their grip on car criminals.

The next significant federal legislation occurred over 40 years later when Congress passed the National Highway Safety Act which changed the patchwork of serial and motor numbers to a complex but uniform computer friendly 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN).

A turn-of-the-20th-century anti-theft device that spikes a car’s wheel preventing it from being driven away. Photo courtesy eBay

Additional laws in 1992, the Anti-Car Theft Act, bolstered law enforcement’s battle against auto theft and “carjacking” and made it a federal crime to own, operate, maintain, or control a “chop shop”.

One early theft prevention device was a pointed collar that fit over the wheel. The advertisement said the noise of the spike hitting the pavement was loud enough to alert bystanders!

The incorporation of electronics into automobiles solved many problems and added theft alarms. Additionally, the simple “clicker” and intelligent keys perform many necessary pre-ignition steps as well. Yes, it is costly because these devices precisely match one car to one key. So…forget duplicating the key at a hardware store! Key shops require the presence of the vehicle and proof of ownership. Their key making machines cost thousands of dollars and become quickly outdated.

Despite all this electronic security, Americans reported over 800,000 vehicles stolen in 2021…slightly more than the previous year. Property losses soared over $7.4 billion (or about $23 per person in the US). In comparison, auto theft has decreased in the EU (European Common Union) since 2008.

Every 46 seconds a car is stolen in the United States, but state recovery rates vary. The state of Washington recovered 71 percent, followed by Utah (63 percent), South Dakota (61 percent), Nevada (61 percent) and California (60 percent). Many stolen cars were used for “joy rides” and abandoned. I could not find the North Carolina recovery rate.

Since 2017, North Carolina has experienced a yearly increase in the number of vehicles stolen.

Stealing a car in North Carolina is a little quirky as the state does not use the charge “Grand Theft Auto.” As the law was explained to me, North Carolina does not have a named offense of “Motor Vehicle Theft.” Rather, the state makes it a felony to possess a stolen vehicle – regardless of its value – and this well guarantees the culprit will face felony charges. The statute, however, distinguishes between larceny and joyriding, which is considered an “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle” – a misdemeanor. With joyriding, the accused had the intention of using or driving the vehicle, but not keeping it.

What are most popular vehicles among thieves? As expected, pick-up trucks and imports top the list. The No. 1 stolen vehicle across the nation is the full-size Ford Pickup with the Chevrolet, Dodge and GMC models close behind. The remainder are import passenger cars – (3) Honda Civic, (4) Honda Accord, (5) Toyota Camry, (6) Nissan Altima, (8) Toyota Corolla and (9) Honda CR-V (9).

Hmm…I’m safe. My aging Subaru did not even make “also ran.”

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