Car crime 'is more than twice as high as in official figures': Four million drivers claim to have been victims of vehicle break-ins. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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CAR CRIME is much more extensive than official statistics suggest, according to a survey published yesterday. Motorists would also support criminal penalties for what is now viewed merely as bad driving behaviour.

Four million British drivers claim to have had a car broken into and goods stolen over the last two years, a figure more than twice as high as indicated by Home Office statistics. In 1991, for example, 0.9 million thefts from cars were recorded by the Home Office.

According to the Lex Report on Motoring, 28 per cent of drivers said that one of the cars in their household had been stolen, broken into or vandalised in the last two years. London and the North fare worst, with one-third of drivers suffering one of the three crimes.

The report, published by the Lex car sales group, is based on a survey by Mori of 2,011 drivers. It shows that people are keeping their cars longer because of the recession, using more unleaded petrol - 48 per cent now, compared to 5 per cent five years ago - and looking for cars that stress theft-proofing, safety and environmental friendliness.

However, a surprising finding is the extent to which the law now apparently understates the seriousness of dangerous or anti-social driving.

An overwhelming majority of motorists (see chart) think that using a car telephone while driving, driving too close behind another vehicle and using a space reserved for disabled drivers should be classed as an offence; 68 per cent think that having a dog loose in the car while driving should be an offence.

Drivers also think that drink- driving while well over the limit and stealing a car for joyriding is more serious than housebreaking and burglary. They view speeding at 50 miles per hour in a 30mph zone and jumping a red light as worse than shoplifting.

Support is also widespread for speeding prevention cameras (86 per cent of drivers agree that they are an important contribution to road safety) and for speed limiters on new cars to restrict them to 100mph (73 per cent). Seven out of 10, however, believe car clamp firms are over-zealous.

Contrary to much 'lifestyle' car advertising, the drivers say they place little value on gadgets, 'status' and acceleration when they buy a car. The most important features are price, size, fuel economy and safety.

However, the trend in favour of public transport in previous Lex reports appears to have levelled off. In 1988, 23 per cent said they would use their car less if public transport was better. This rose to 38 per cent in 1990 but has since slipped to 35 per cent.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, cites the importance drivers attach to their cars in a foreword to the report, adding: 'We must clearly take account of this in framing our transport policies.'

Lex Report on Motoring - The Consumer View; Lex Service, 17 Connaught Place, London W2 2EL; pounds 195.

(Chart omitted)