The UK has the highest level of vehicle crime in Europe, but you can defeat the thief. By James Ruppert
FIRST OF all there is that feeling of uncertainty. "Maybe I parked it somewhere else." Then slowly the pit of your stomach churns and you realise it probably has been stolen. The next person you talk to is an officer of the law. Then it's a cab home. After that there are protracted negotiations with your insurance company and a debate over how much it was worth. Finally there is a wait for the pay-out, usually six weeks if you are lucky.

Car hire, loss of no-claims bonus and having to pay an insurance excess are just some of the other financial implications. Can all this hassle be avoided, or are the odds stacked against the motorist?

It doesn't look good at the moment. Insurers paid out on more than 560,000 claims for thefts of and from vehicles. The total costs of these claims was about pounds 560m with each claim worth an average pounds 1,136. Vehicle-related theft now accounts for a quarter of all crime in Britain, which has the worst record in Europe. A vehicle is stolen roughly every minute, and the car crime industry is calculated to turn over some pounds 3bn annually.

The motor industry itself has responded by installing at least an engine immobiliser on most models. What Car? magazine has just voted the BMW 3, 5 and 7 series as outright winners of its annual security award. Their immobilisers have never been "hot wired" (bypassed) since they were introduced in 1995. These BMWs also have marked parts and a visible vehicle identification number to help police trace them. The music system is unique to BMWs, the wheels are locked in place, and there is plenty of secure storage.

Not surprisingly the company has just received two security awards from the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. While you would expect that level of security from a BMW, it is good to see that even entry-level Fords such as the Ka also have standard deadlocks and effective immobilisers.

The industry standard for anti-theft devices is those evaluated by the Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre at Thatcham. Approved Category 1 systems are those which have a combined alarm and immobiliser, while Category 2s are simply electronic immobilisers. Fitting such devices means that in many cases insurance premiums will be discounted and, with certain performance cars, insurance is unobtainable without a Category 1 or 2 system. To find out which are approved, there is a Thatcham hotline and also a fax-back service, which delivers a 15-page list. The Vehicle Security Installation Board, which provides a list of accredited installers, also operates a hotline.

What about cars built more than 10 years ago, which do not have much in the way of theft protection? A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers was aware that "older cars are much less secure and owners need to be much more careful to guard against the opportunist thief".

However, Russ Smith, the deputy editor of Practical Classics magazine doesn't think that they should be a soft touch. "The door locks are always the weak spot. However, a company called Hykee makes inserts, which have unique key combinations and are screwdriver resistant, from pounds 74 a pair. I'm never keen on bolt-on deterrents like steering wheel locks which advertise to the thief what needs to be done. I would recommend a well-hidden fuel or ignition cut-off switch every time. Older cars are easier to modify in this way and I reckon that slowing down the thief and frustrating them is the best deterrent."

The good news is that the car crime trend is downward and the Government has pledged to reduce car crime by 30 per cent over the next five years. Unfortunately, upto 60 per cent of stolen cars are never recovered. Alarms and immobilisers are not the ultimate deterrents, especially when such devices can be overcome, or the vehicles themselves removed by a tow truck or even car-jacked.

Probably the most effective solution to the problem has been provided by the Tracker system, which was launched in the UK in 1993. It is the only one operated by all 52 UK police forces. The latest Tracker 24-hour Monitor alerts the owner when it is moved without permission. A sensitive movement detector is hidden in one of 30 places and transmits a unique signal which can be detected by police patrol cars, helicopters and at fixed sites around the country. Tracker prices start at pounds 270 plus an annual subscription of pounds 75 per year, or a one-off payment of pounds 245. They're obviously doing some good: so far more than 3,283 vehicles have been recovered, with a value of pounds 38.1m, and 955 arrests made.

You can never stop a car being stolen, so you'll still get that sinking feeling, but at least you stand a chance of a nice warm feeling when you get it back.

Thatcham Hotline (0990 502006); Thatcham fax-back (0660 666680); Hykee (01843 862952);

Tracker (0500 090909)