The other morning, I was browsing the online news bulletin that arrives daily from my son’s University. This day’s lead headline caught my eye due to the mentioning of cars before the usual spate of self-congratulatory “news” about giant lasers, notable faculty achievements, and dining hall hours.
Hummmmm. This reminded me that I’d seen a similar bulletin last semester about the prevalence of catalytic converter thefts from cars on campus. That previous announcement, I now recall, had inspired a rather mind-bending thread on the parents’ Facebook group where Facebook people were a) trying to explain to each other what “catalytic converters” are and b) enthusiastically recommending various companies in the University area that could install anti-theft devices on their kids’ cars to protect these mysterious parts. I think it was that conversation, with all of the abundant vigor, insight and reading comprehension skills exhibited by the same group of people who can spend several weeks discussing and recommending “cupcake delivery services” to other desperate parents of lonely (and presumably sugar-deprived) students, that sort of turned me away from the whole subject.
But now that University Public Safety had decided to publish a whole FAQ on Korean vehicle thefts, I figured that this may warrant a quick read. One thing lead to another, and here I am thinking more broadly about current trends in auto theft.
So, it turns out that 12 years worth of Kias and nearly that many years of Hyundais manufactured as recently as the 2022 model year don’t have imobilizers built into their ignition circuits? Good grief. Who would have known?
It appears that in this case yoots across the Internet learned about this Hyundai/Kia “feature” via Tiktok (of course they did). Having tired of other Darwin Award-worthy acts such as challenging each other to eat laundry detergent and stick metal coins in electrical sockets, the yoots of America have now moved on to unauthorized joy riding in some of the least expensive and joyless cars on American roads.
While it should be possible (with those potential fightin’ words) to start a spirited discussion here about the vehicular merits of the bulk of Kia and Hyundai models from the past decade, I rather think a significant part of what fascinates the general public about the current Kia and Hyundai “Challenges” relates to the surprise of learning that anyone would actually want to steal these generally low-end cars.
If that’s true, it’s because the general public probably hasn’t spent much time reviewing years worth of data related to auto theft statistics.
Since most auto theft in the US – and I would assume this is the case in other countries as well – ultimately involves interaction with the insurance industry, turns out that the go-to data source for information related to auto theft is the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). NCIB’s readily available on-line data sources about the prevalence of insurance coverage of losses due to theft offer an excellent immersion into simple descriptive statistics. A quick review of NCIB data reveals some interesting factoids as well as lessons on why numbers do not always mean what they appear to mean. I’d love to use this data to teach a high school level consumer mathematics course.
|State Name||2019 Thefts||2020 Thefts||2019 Est Pop||2020 Est Pop||2019 Rate||2020 Rate||2019 Rank||2020 Rank|
|District of Columbia||2,857||4,013||705,749||712,816||404.82||562.98||3||1|
It’s fun to slice and dice the NCIB data on theft rates by year (that’s the chart above, and you can find more years of comparison data here). There are a few outstanding points that emerge from examining the data, and in particular from taking that “15,000 foot” (not too low and yet not too high) view of data that I often advocate. First, the list of those states that have the highest auto theft rates tend to be fairly consistent. Colorado and California are consistently in the top 5 of states with the most auto thefts per person. The theft rate in NCIB data is expressed as a function of state population – or as the number of thefts per 100,oo0 population (note that this is human population and not the number of cars registered in the state). I have no idea why these two states rank so much higher than other states with large populations such as Texas (generally below the top 10) and Florida (generally below the top quarter of states). Likewise, it’s hard to explain why DC (if you count it as a “state” as NCIB does) ranks so high in thefts. Its per person rate was the highest in the nation in 2020, and therefore higher than nearly all other states with similar populations, including some rather urban states such as Delaware and Rhode Island. Yep, people are apparently relatively wild about auto theft in DC.
OK…so what kinds of cars were stolen in DC in 2020?
|9||Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee||2015|
That list looks to me more like what I see in the “Standard” or “Compact” category on the Avis website than anything approaching a list of cars that one might risk prison time in order to acquire. Just like on Avis, I too probably go for the Malibu (and hope for an upgrade at the counter) if I were browsing for a car to steal. This, by the way, is akin to my rule of “go for the steak” when confronted with questionable quality food in some of the sketchy backwater places where my domestic U.S. business travel has taken me. I mean, putting aside vegan sensibilities for the moment, where the steak is concerned there’s only one thing to cook…what are the chances that this could be screwed up to the point where after eating it I’d be too sick to make it to tomorrow’s meeting? A rental Malibu is a safe steak in a world of potential automotive gastric disturbances. The full 2020 list of the top 10 vehicles stolen in each state is available here. My point is that the most commonly stolen cars seem to inevitably be pretty dull, yet practical, choices.
When looking at the most commonly-stolen vehicles nationwide, DC’s top-10 list gets expanded to include the full-size pickups from GM and Ford. Again, this makes sense as these are also among the most common vehicles in the country, and are also likely the most “needed”…if you make the assumption (as I do for the most part) that auto theft is largely the product of poor choices related to fulfilling need versus simply sheer stupidity (as would mostly be the case with eating laundry detergent).
The fact that run of the mill Toyotas are perennial favorites as stolen cars is not at all a new phenomena. In fact, of the two people I know who have had more than one run-in with car thieves, one had a Toyota and the other had two different Honda products stolen.
Here’s a car that is so sufficiently without following that I had a very difficult time finding a picture of one (winding up with this from the Toyota archives). My friend’s 1984 Corolla was frankly a scary-dull piece of automotive dreck. Yet, it was repeatedly stolen when he lived in NYC in the mid-to-late 1980s. Each time, the car was recovered…generally within the same borough. I believe that he was relieved when it was recovered after the third theft in too damaged a condition to warrant continuing to drive it.
All things considered then, today’s fad for stealing 10 year old Hyundais is not at all surprising.
What’s equally easy to understand, and even more depressing to me, is the prevalence of stealing just the catalytic converters off of cars. It’s said that the converters from hybrids are most desirable as they have the highest percentage of desirable metals within them. Likewise, the converters from SUVs and crossovers are most often stolen, presumably because they are easier to access and don’t even involve needing to jack the car up to chop them off. Great. Some jerk is going total my 2006 Highlander Hybrid by cutting off its converter. The whole vehicle is probably worth less than what it would cost to replace the catalyst. That would stink, although the chance of it happening seems to be growing steadily.
Getting back to the University Department of Public Safety bulletin that got me started this morning, the linked FAQ stated that the best deterrent to theft if one had a Hyundai/Kia with no interlock (i.e., most Hyundais and Kias from the past dozen years) was the good old fashioned “Club”, pictured at the top of this post. Geeze, I have two of those things in my basement from back in the bad-old-days in the 1980s when car theft seemed to be more of a pressing issue. Only it turns out that it wasn’t as pressing an issue as it is now. Times are strange.
I highly doubt that my Clubs have anything to do with the fact that I personally have never had a vehicle outright stolen. I have had cars broken into on NYC streets on multiple occasions back in the 80s and 90s. In fact, I came to assume that back in those days getting your window broken so that someone could riffle around inside your car was about a common as a parking ticket (it was for me and many urban-dwellers I knew). Likewise, whole vehicle theft was simply assumed as inevitable. I steadfastly refused to park on the street overnight when visiting friends in the City. I’ll probably always think of NYC that way. And yet, according to NICB data, NY is now one of the safest places in the country (see the above table for 2019 and 2020 data) in terms of auto theft. Go figure.
This, by the way, connects to the issue of “car alarms”…which were so much more common in the 80s and 90s than they are now. Nevertheless, there’s more auto theft now than there was at the time when I used to seriously think about attacking cars with a baseball bat in order to silence their alarms that regularly went off repeatedly in the middle of the night. I guess that’s another article altogether.
Alright CC community…what’s been your experience over time with auto theft? Have you had one – or more – stolen? Is this something that concerns you in your daily life? What’s going on with Colorado and DC? Oh, and if you know any scared Kia drivers, send them my way…I’ll start looking for the keys to my Clubs. They’ve got to be around here someplace.