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Car Theft Slows to 20-Year Low

Will it rebound during recession?

by on Oct.19, 2009

No game. It may be fun to steal cars in the popular Grand Theft Auto videogame, but in the real world, thefts have dropped by half since 1991.

It's fun to steal cars in Grand Theft Auto. In the real world, thefts have dropped by half since 1991.

Grand Theft Auto may be one of the most popular video games, but it seems like the real crooks are going into another line of business.  New data show that car thefts continue to tumble – in part due to improved security systems on new vehicles – and have hit a 20-year low.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that just 956,846 motor vehicles were stolen in the U.S. last year.  While that may sound like a lot, that figure compares with the record 1.66 million vehicles stolen in 1991.  And that doesn’t fully reveal the dramatic decline.  There are more people in the U.S. and significantly more cars, trucks and crossovers on the road now, so the 2008 data equal 315 cars for every 100,000 people, down from 659 per 100,000 in 1991.

Experts debate the reasons behind the reduction in car theft.  Some point to new technology, such as ignition immobilizers, which prevent an engine from starting unless you use the correct, digitally-encoded key.  There are several different systems now available to motorists and authorities which help track stolen vehicles, including a new service recently launched by the General Motors subsidiary OnStar.

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Meanwhile, there have been a number of federal, state and local programs created to both prevent car thefts or at least catch the perpetrators, including HEAT, short for Help Eliminate Auto Thefts.  And in many jurisdictions, the courts have become tougher on thieves who, in decades past, may have been able to avoid jail time.

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