MOTORING: Your car in their hands

Britain leads the world in car theft. But is the fear even greater than the reality? Phil Dourado reports
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The Independent Culture
THE SINKING feeling experienced by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, when he rounded a corner near the Houses of Parliament will be familiar to many car owners. What he found was an empty parking space where he thought his Jaguar XJ6 should have been. His instant assumption was that the car had been stolen, a belief only slightly dented by it turning up in a police car-pound a day later. He maintained afterwards that it had been moved to a neighbouring street and abandoned before being clamped and towed away. Was John Prescott being paranoid, as the sniggering tabloid headlines made out next day? Certainly, his assumption about car theft is well founded - and his fear of it is shared by many. The latest edition of Social Trends, the Government's statistical snapshot of the nation published last week, reveals that fear of car theft is a growing concern. One in three young men and women are "very worried" about their car being stolen. Home Office research indicates that more people worry about having their carstolen than they do about any other crime, apart from rape.

But the depressing news is that such fears are justified. A Home Office survey last year revealed that the risk of having your car stolen is greater in England and Wales than anywhere else in the world. Why should this be? Certainly, it has little to do with British cars being less secure. Alarms are fitted to 51 per cent of new UK-made cars; for vehicles made in mainland Europe, the figure is only 10 per cent.

International companies exporting cars to Britain are well aware of the problem. They now fit extra security devices to their UK-bound models. The Ford Probe, for example, is made in the USA and sold all over the world - but Britain is the only market where it comes with an immobiliser as a factory-fitted standard.

Everywhere in the world, from Brooklyn to Hong Kong, professional gangs steal prestige cars to order. The theft of John Prescott's conspicuous Jaguar was probably this kind of operation. Had the thieves succeeded, the XJ6 would have been on a ferry to the Continent before he had even noticed it was missing.

But this kind of crime alone does not explain why Britain is top of the international car-theft league. For that, we can blame another peculiarly British disease - joyriding. No other country has experienced the surge that Britain has seen. The term itself, discouraged by the police and the Home Office as "trivialising", is certainly accurate - the taking of a car for pleasure rather than profit.

The first evidence, in the mid-1980s, of the joyriding epidemic suggested that flashy cars were most at risk. Then, TV news crews who ventured on to an Oxford housing estate after dark captured surreal footage. Those who work with young car thieves stillinsist it was these images that inspired a wave of copycats from Sunderland to Moss Side.

Youngsters who could barely see over the steering wheels of their stolen Cosworths and GTis showed off to the camera by performing 180-degree handbrake turns to a squealing soundtrack of burning rubber. It was the combination of the baby faces (more thana third of car crime in Britain is committed by under-l6s) and the heavy horsepower that seemed so incongruous. But perhaps, with the potent 1980s images of seemingly pubescent City dealers charging around in red Porsches, we should have seen it coming.

In the 1990s, however, fast new cars are no longer the ones most at risk. The fact that they emerge from the showroom bristling with security devices acts as a deterrent. Contrary to expectations, owners of humble Metros are more likely to have their cars disappear from outside their homes than those owners of Jaguars who temporarily misplace them somewhere in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament.

A car-theft index used by the Home Office during Car Crime Prevention Year in 1992 (a year when car crime figures rose regardless) contains further surprises for those who assume only owners of flash cars need worry. It showed that old Hillman Minxes andFiat 132s, among other unlikely candidates, were more at risk of being stolen than BMW 500s, Lancias and Saabs.

The index also revealed something any Ford Capri driver probably knows already - owners of old Fords have more reason to worry than anyone else. Of the 13 cars more likely to be stolen, no fewer than 10 were Fords. Ageing Rover Metros, Vaux-hall Astra Belmonts and Vauxhall Astra Mark 2s were the only non-Fords in the highest-risk category.

In the Eighties, plagued with a "one key fits all" reputation ("I found out by accident that my car would start with a petrol cap key bought from Halfords," said one owner of an old Mark 1 Capri), Ford brought in a re-vamped lock complete with a high-security key. Last year the company went one step further with Safeguard, a system where the key contains one of 49 billion possible codes and communicates with the dashboard via microwave signals. The car refuses to start unless it recognises the right key.

According to What Car? magazine, the system makes new Fiestas and Escorts "probably the hardest cars to drive away". But it will be years before the majority of Fords on the road are Safeguard cars and, in the meantime, older Fords will probably remain prime targets.

In interviews with 30 joyriders carried out for a University of Durham thesis in 1990, Jeffrey Briggs found that 23 of them cited Fords as their marque of choice. Briggs also found that, where immobilisers were seen by joyriders as an effective deterrent, alarms weren't.

"One frequently used approach to overcoming an alarm system," Briggs explains, "is to trigger it repeatedly until the owner assumes it is faulty and turns it off."

Eileen Spencer, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunder-land, found a similar disrespect for alarms when she spoke to youngsters on a Sunderland housing estate for a Home Office report in 1992. "They told me that immobilisers were the only thing that would stop them. They don't seem to find it that hard getting past alarms," she says.

The work of Briggs, Spencer and other researchers reveals the lengths to which some young people will go to get hold of a car. But it doesn't tell us why this should happen in Britain so much more than it does anywhere else. Some commentators, such as motoring journalist and BBC Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, blame the 1980s joyriding surge on the "Greed is good, grab it if you can" attitude. The two certainly coincided.

Another reason may be the conspicuous consumption that characterised the 1980s. Young unemployed males felt excluded from this - and in pre-Lottery days there was no 14 million-to-one way out to divert them. "The car is a symbol of adulthood the world over, particularly for boys," says Eileen Spencer. "It's something you get as a reward for growing up and getting a job. It's part of your identity. The young people I spoke to commonly had unemployed parents and no prospect of getting a job themselves. That route to adulthood was denied them," - so they "borrowed" someone else's.

What can car owners do about the problem? Sadly, moving to Dyfed and Powys in mid-Wales - bottom of the British car-theft league table - is not the way to leave crime far behind you. Home Office statistics show that the region has the highest proportion of violent crime in the country. There's always cycling, I suppose. ! WHERE YOUR CAR IS MOST LIKELY TO BE STOLEN 1) Cleveland 2) Greater Manchester 3) Northumbria 4) West Yorkshire 5) Avon & Somerset 6) South Wales 7) Nottinghamshire 8) West Midlands 9) Bedfordshire 10) Durham (Greater London came 18th out of 42 regions)

WHERE YOUR CAR IS LEAST LIKELY TO BE STOLEN 33) Sussex 34) Norfolk 35) North Yorkshire 36) Dorset 37) North Wales 38) Lincolnshire 39) Devon & Cornwall 40) Wiltshire 41) Suffolk .

42) Dyfed-Powys Source: The Insurance Service Regional Autocrime League Table (1993).