As soon as car security devices become more sophisticated, thieves' techniques quickly follow suit. But latest developments look set to cut car theft and improve tracking of stolen vehicles. Kathryn McCarthy reports.

In a concerted effort to beat car crime, vehicle security has become a sophisticated arena, with ever more ingenious and high-tech methods of beating car theft. But, as security devices become more advanced, thieves adapt their methods of stealing cars.

A worrying trend has emerged, where car thieves are stealing keys to overcome new security devices, reportedly burgling homes and using violence to obtain them.

The UK has the worst vehicle theft problem in Europe, with more than 1,100 vehicles stolen every day - almost one car a minute. More than half are never recovered and those that are found may be badly damaged or beyond repair. The cost to insurers is estimated to be in the region of £1.5bn a year.

Insurance companies offer a variety of discounts for Thatcham-approved security devices and there is a wide array of security products, with price tags to reflect their position in the vehicle protection hierarchy. An alarm immobiliser, plus the latest in vehicle tracking technology, may suit a brand new Audi or BMW, but a ten-year-old Fiesta would probably warrant a sturdy steering-wheel lock.

Today, many security features are fitted as standard to new cars by motor manufacturers in a bid to reduce car crime, which accounts for more than 20% of all recorded crime. These include high-security door locks, alarm and immobilisation systems, glass etching, coded audio equipment, locking devices for alloy wheels and visible VIN numbers.

The windows in most new cars are made from toughened glass, which offers little protection from thieves because it is very easy to break. Laminated glass is already used in windscreens and some manufacturers are planning to fit this instead of toughened glass in side windows. There are some concerns relating to safety, but there is growing consensus that laminated glass is the best way to reduce theft from vehicles.

Improved levels of security on new cars means they are at a lesser risk of being stolen than older cars. As a result, there is a marked increase in thieves targeting older, less secure cars. The vehicles are often either sold on or broken down for parts that can be relatively expensive to replace on older vehicles. There is a ready market for stolen parts for older cars, especially for the more popular models.

Most insurers offer a small premium discount if a vehicle has a professionally fitted alarm or immobiliser system. The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre (MIRRC) at Thatcham maintains a list of vehicle security devices which comply with the criteria of the insurance industry vehicle security scheme. Insurers use this list as a basis for premium discounts and required security.

Rating vehicle security
In an effort to help consumers judge car security levels, a new car security rating system has just been launched to provide comprehensive information on the security of all new cars in the UK.

The new car security ratings (NCSR) was developed by the MIRRC at Thatcham for the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Lloyd's, and provides an indication of the quality of design and effectiveness of anti-theft measures. The NCSR will provide consumers with a quick guide to how well a vehicle will resist being broken into and stolen.

In spite of the large variety of vehicle security devices fitted as standard to new cars, there is still a demand for additional protection to help combat the problem of locating and recovering stolen cars. The Tracker Network is a stolen vehicle recovery system that has proved its worth to customers, the police and insurers alike.

Since its UK launch in 1993, Tracker has made more than 5,800 recoveries, with a total vehicle value of over £100m. As a result of these recoveries, more than 1,200 arrests have been made in this period.

Tracker uses radio transmission technology for its retrieve and monitor systems to locate a stolen vehicle's position. Now, with the launch of Horizon, the system also uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to provide more accurate vehicle tracking.

All of the UK's 52 police forces operate the Tracker system, and police cars and helicopters are fitted with the technology to track and locate a stolen vehicle. Most motor insurers give between 5% and 15% discount when Tracker is fitted to a private car and often substantially more for plant and equipment.

Tracker is also monitoring the growing trend of stealing car keys in order to bypass security systems.

In the ten months to June 2001, Tracker reported 101 cases of vehicle keys being stolen, with 52 of these taken during a burglary and, alarmingly, 30 taken using force. Some victims have been hospitalised and there is a reported increase in the use of guns to take vehicles by force, proving that determined car thieves will find a way around most security devices.

Who you gonna call?
Beating determined car thieves is the mission of Thiefbeaters, a company that specialises in marking vehicles to ensure their identity can be preserved, even if the usual means of car identification have been removed.

Director of Thiefbeaters, Andy James, explains that a loophole in the law allows vehicle thieves to retain their stolen property if it cannot be matched up to its rightful owner.

"This situation illustrates the value of a system that marks a vehicle extensively and secretly, thus helping to return stolen cars," he says.

Four years ago, Thiefbeaters developed a system to improve the identification of property, using traditional methods coupled with current technology.

"We use electronic transponders, which are very small devices providing a hidden unique ID - a bit like pet tagging," he explains.

"We also generate a unique code which is applied to the vehicle in more than 40 locations, and take a series of high-quality digital photos of an item, to be used in the event of a theft."

The Thiefbeaters system has been awarded Thatcham-approved category Q deterrent system, the same category as Tracker. The system costs £200 and is gaining recognition from some motor insurers, who are offering premium discounts.

The principle behind all these sophisticated security devices is to improve recoveries, which benefits the insurance industry. It also benefits the owners, as it deters theft, providing a win-win situation all round. The only deterrent, as always, will be the price of the security item.

Uninsured driving
Uninsured drivers of stolen vehicles often drive erratically and may injure, kill and damage property. As the vehicle's insurer is obliged to pay third-party claims arising from a stolen vehicle, it is in everyone's interest to track down thieves.

Uninsured driving is a widespread problem, costing the industry and general public a substantial amount of money every year. A new database from the Motor Insurers Information Centre (MIIC), a subsidiary of the Motor Insurers' Bureau (MIB), will help the police identify uninsured drivers quickly at the roadside.

The problem

  • Britain has one of the worst uninsured driving problems in Europe. It is estimated that there are more than 1 million vehicles circulating in the UK at any one time without proper insurance
  • In 1998, the number of convictions for uninsured driving in England and Wales was 257,000
  • The MIB compensates victims of accidents caused by uninsured drivers. The costs of these claims are passed back to insurance companies and then to their policyholders through higher premiums
  • The number of vehicle checks carried out by the police each year is approximately 25 million, costing around £20m to operate through the manual HORT1 system
  • The MIB levy, paid for by motor insurers, is rising significantly each year:
    1995 - £100m
    1996 - £130m
    1997 - £130m
    1998 - £165m
    1999 - £185m
    2000 - £215m
    2001 - £265m (estimate)
  • The number of claims handled by the MIB in 1999 was 47,500
  • Average motor premium currently costs around £350
  • Average fine for driving without insurance is £150
  • Uninsured and under-insured drivers cost policyholders in excess of £400m a year, a figure that is growing sharply. This equates to every insured driver paying between £15 and £30 per year extra to fund those who do not take out insurance.

    The solution

  • The MIIC is coordinating industry effortsto tackle the problem of uninsured drivers through the establishment of a database of all vehicles registered in the UK, together with their insurance details. The Motor Insurance Database (MID) will be accessible by the police in order to verify the insurance status of a driver and his or her vehicle
  • A 2% reduction in uninsured driving will cover cost of developing and running the database

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