NHTSA Report Number DOT HS 808 761 July 1998

Auto Theft and Recovery: Effects of the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992 and the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act of 1984

Report to the Congress


Executive Summary

Motor vehicle theft was a growing problem in the early and mid 1980's. In 1984, Congress enacted the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act in order to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle thefts and facilitate the tracing and recovery of stolen motor vehicles and parts from stolen vehicles. The epartment of Transportation implemented the 1984 Act by issuing the Federal Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Standard, which requires manufacturers of designated high theft passenger car lines to inscribe or affix the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) onto the engine, the transmission, and 12 major body parts. As an alternative to parts marking, manufacturers could choose to install antitheft devices as standard equipment on a limited number of those lines. The objective of parts marking is to allow law enforcement agencies to identify stolen vehicles or parts removed from stolen vehicles - and to deter professional thieves since they will have difficulty in marketing stolen marked parts and are more likely to get caught if they steal cars with marked parts. The high-theft car lines were designated in 1985, and actual parts marking began with model year 1987.

In 1991, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) presented a report to the Congress assessing the auto theft problem in the United States and, in particular, attempting to evaluate parts marking. At that time, however, only two years of theft and recovery data were available for cars with marked parts. Evidence of the effectiveness of parts marking could not be obtained through statistical analysis of theft and recovery rates. Nevertheless, the Department found wide support in 1991 for parts marking from the law enforcement community. Investigators believed that parts marking provided them with a valuable tool for detecting, apprehending, and prosecuting thieves. After considering the analyses, surveys and public comments obtained during the preparation of the 1991 report, the Department recommended that the theft prevention standard be continued with minor changes.

In 1991-92, motor vehicle theft was still a large problem. Thefts had increased from 830,000 in 1984 to 1,270,000 by 1990. In search of stronger remedies, and in response to the Department's recommendation and other information, Congress enacted the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992. The 1992 Act built on the 1984 Act in several ways: Federal penalties were enhanced; a grant program was authorized to help law enforcement agencies concerned with auto theft; steps were taken to improve motor vehicle titling, registration, and salvage; the Theft Prevention Standard was to be expanded to other passenger car lines and high theft multipurpose passenger vehicles and light trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings of 6,000 pounds or less, which became effective starting with the 1997 model year; rules were established regarding salvage or junk vehicles; a stolen parts information system was to be maintained by the Attorney General; dealing in stolen marked parts became a Federal crime; and random customs inspections were allowed.

The 1992 Act requires the Department of Transportation to provide a report to the Congress updating the findings of the 1991 report and evaluating the effects of the 1984 and 1992 acts. As a first step, the Department published a Preliminary Report for public review and issuing a notice in the Federal Register on June 26, 1997 announcing a 45 day opportunity for public comment. Comments received have been summarized and discussed as part of this Final Report that will be transmitted to the Congress.

The goals of this report are:

To update the detailed statistics on motor vehicle theft and recovery presented in the 1991 report. For this report, theft and recovery data were available from 1984 through 1995, and insurance data from 1986 through 1992.

To revisit the evaluation of parts marking and antitheft devices, now that extensive data are available on the theft experience of cars with those remedies. (However, since theft data were available only through 1995, the effectiveness of the 1992 Act as regards expanded coverage in 1997 and later models cannot be analyzed at this time.)

To evaluate other provisions of the 1992 Anti Car Theft Act and the 1984 Act, focusing on changes that have occurred since the 1991 report.

The basic reasons for stealing cars have not changed since the 1991 report. Cars are stolen for transportation, joyriding, export, for repair parts, and to obtain expensive items such as stereo equipment for a quick profit. Since the last report to Congress, a new type of auto theft crime has emerged -- carjacking -- but the theft motives are still the same. Fundamentally, though, two types of auto theft may be recognized: (1) Professional thefts for profit, such as thefts to supply chop shops, retagging and retitling, or for illegal export. These thefts often result in a total loss to the original owner, but there is hope they can be deterred by remedies such as parts marking. They are believed to account for at least 23 percent of all thefts, and perhaps substantially more. (2) Nonprofessional thefts for purposes such as joyriding or to obtain temporary transportation. The vehicles are mostly recovered; on the other hand, parts marking would not appear as likely to deter these thefts.

Overall theft and recovery statistics: As in the 1991 report, theft and recovery data come from the FBI's National Crime Information Center. The data do not indicate the motives for individual thefts or separate the "professional" from the "nonprofessional" thefts. Analyses based on aggregate data cannot identify the effectiveness of each subsection of the 1984 and 1992 Acts, but can provide insights on the trend in thefts and recoveries.

The principal finding of this evaluation is that the auto theft problem, which was growing during the mid 1980's, leveled off or even began to decline after 1989-90. In 1995, there were 1,180,000 motor vehicles stolen, a decline of seven percent from the all-time peak of 1,270,000 experienced in both 1990 and 1992. However, the 1995 thefts are still 39 percent more than the 830,000 experienced in 1984. The theft rate per 100,000 registered vehicles increased from 543 in 1984 to 714 in 1990, but had dropped back to 597 by 1995.

Passenger cars account for 71 percent of all motor vehicle thefts, followed by light trucks - pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans - at 24 percent. The remaining thefts are split between heavy trucks and motorcycles. Theft rates for all four vehicle types have declined since 1990.

Recoveries of stolen vehicles have kept pace with thefts over the years - recovery rates have remained stable at close to 80 percent of thefts throughout 1984-95. Passenger cars have slightly higher recovery rates than light trucks. Motorcycles have substantially lower recovery rates, and they have gotten worse. It is estimated that the annual economic loss resulting from vehicle thefts - and from the fact that many vehicles are never recovered or only recovered in a damaged condition - is at least $4 billion and could be as high as $8 billion.

Effect of parts marking and antitheft devices: The average consumer cost of parts marking in 1995 models was $4.92 per car. At that cost, just a 2 percent reduction in the theft rate would create consumer benefits exceeding the cost of parts marking.

Theft and recovery rates for car lines that got parts marking in 1987 were compared to the rates for the same car lines before 1987 and to the rates for car lines that did not get either parts marking or antitheft devices. However, the fact that, originally, only high-theft car lines got parts marking resulted in biases in the data that made it essentially impossible to reliably attribute a specific percentage reduction in thefts or increase in recoveries to parts marking. Still, the analyses provided five indications (hedged with caveats) that parts marking quite possibly had beneficial effects at times, apparently greater than 2 percent:

There was a conspicuous shift in theft rates in model years 1986-87, coinciding with the introduction of parts marking. Cars with marked parts had lower theft rates than expected, while those with unmarked parts had higher rates than expected. The effect was as strong as 20 percent when cars were new, but it weakened as they became older and seemed to have vanished by the time they were two years old. The latter is a noteworthy finding, since it is consistent with the view that many professional thieves subsequently learned how to obliterate the markings, and found them less of a deterrent.

Recovery rates for 1987 cars with marked parts were consistently higher than for corresponding 1986 models, even as the cars got older. However, this favorable effect in model year 1987 consistently deteriorated in later model years.

In calendar year 1987, the unrecovered-theft rate of model year 1987 cars with parts marking was 26 percent lower than expected. As the model year 1987 cars got older, the benefit diminished, but still persisted at about 6 percent. However, the latter estimate is within the "noise range" of possible biases in the data and it cannot be attributed to parts marking without considerable doubt.

Almost all car lines had lower theft rates in their early 1990's models than in their late 1970's models. However, the long-term reduction was substantially greater in the car lines that got parts marking or antitheft devices than in the car lines that did not. It is not so clear what happened during the crucial intervening years, the 1980's.

There was a strong reduction after 1987 in the percentage of vehicles that were only recovered in-part - i.e., missing their engine, transmission or a major body part (those which for high theft lines are required to have markings). There was a corresponding increase in percentage of vehicles recovered in-whole (no major parts missing) or intact. This trend was especially strong in the car lines with marked parts.

By contrast, for at least one type of factory-installed antitheft device, the available data unequivocally show effectiveness. The system installed by a domestic manufacturer as standard equipment in various car lines during 1989-94 was associated with an immediate, and persistent 70 percent reduction in the theft rate and a 58 percent reduction in the unrecovered-theft rate. This device appears to be quite effective in reducing both "professional" and "casual" thefts. Of course, a system of this type has a far higher cost than parts marking.

Fewer data were available on the antitheft devices factory-installed by other manufacturers. Specific estimates were not obtained, but there appeared to be considerable variation in effectiveness. With some of the devices, little change was seen in theft rates; with others, there were reductions comparable to those for the domestic manufacturer. No data were available for evaluating the effect of aftermarket antitheft devices.

On the whole, the analysis results seem to suggest that the approach of Chapter 331 of the Anti Car Theft Act, which views both parts-marking and factory-installed antitheft devices as effective deterrents to automobile theft, has had benefits. There is some indication that the effect of parts marking might have been greater than two percent needed for cost-effectiveness, at least at certain times. Parts marking and antitheft devices have complementary roles: antitheft devices make it harder to steal a car, while parts marking deters professional thieves because it makes it easier to apprehend and convict them. The two remedies seem to be integral components of a larger program to combat auto theft. That program has, on the whole, had an impact, as evidenced by the leveling off and reduction of theft rates after 1990.

Discussion of other provisions of the 1984 and 1992 Acts: Collection and dissemination of theft and recovery information has improved since 1991, primarily because technical advances in communications and computer equipment made databases more complete and accessible to agencies needing the information. The two systems called for in the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992 - the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and the National Stolen Auto Part Information System - are either not completely in place or are so new that their effects on vehicle theft (prevention, recovery or apprehension of thieves) cannot be evaluated at this time.

In tandem with the number of motor vehicle thefts, arrests for auto theft peaked in 1989 and have leveled off since then. In 1994, an estimated 200,000 were arrested for auto theft or attempted theft in the United States.

While recent surveys of district attorneys and law enforcement agencies did not provide detailed statistical data on arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for auto theft, they present an even more encouraging picture than corresponding surveys in the earlier report. Since 1991, there have been moderate increases in the number of prosecutions under both Federal Acts. There have also been increases in the level of effort directed to each prosecution. Now that they have better evidence with which to work, both prosecutors and officers are willing to invest more effort at obtaining a conviction. By 1996, prosecutors saw an increase of over 20 percent in the number of prosecuted cases, and 10 percent said that theft rates had declined in their jurisdictions. By 1996, in contrast to almost no effect seen in 1991, almost half of the district attorneys reported an increase in convictions - and most of them attributed it to the Federal Acts. Stiffer sentencing was occurring in 45 percent of the convictions, including a 75 percent increase in jail sentences. This could be even higher, they report, but for prison overcrowding.

Law enforcement agencies report the same attitudes about the deterrent effects of parts marking in 1996 as they did in 1991. They feel that auto thefts for chop shop operations will continue if there is a demand for a part, marked or not. But almost half of the investigators feel that parts marking makes professional thieves more cautious or even deters them completely from stealing cars with marked parts. All investigators thought parts marking had no effect on amateur thieves. Parts marking seems to have the greatest effect on chop shop operators because of the increased cost of "doing business."

Auto theft investigators feel that parts marking is a valuable tool for arresting and prosecuting thieves. In 1991, they saw little or no effect, but by 1996, most of them felt that parts marking did assist in identifying and recovering stolen parts and vehicles. About three fourths of the law enforcement agencies in big cities said parts marking helped in arresting both chop shop operators and professional thieves. Auto theft investigators, as in 1991, still say that more permanent methods for parts marking are needed. Even though it is unlawful to remove labels from marked parts and the labels are required to leave evidence that they were once on the marked part, thieves have found methods for removing both the label and its "footprint". The investigator then has to be sufficiently knowledgeable to recognize that the part should have a label. Also without the label it is very difficult to trace the part back to the vehicle from which it was stolen.

Data received from the Customs Service since the 1991 report, indicates it has improved its ability to recoup stolen vehicles.

Insurance companies have not reported any effects of parts marking on insurance premiums. Some insurance companies do offer discounts on comprehensive premiums for vehicles equipped with certain types of anti theft devices. Analysis of claim payments also has not shown any specific effects of either parts marking or antitheft devices. Insurance companies report that their used part policies have not changed since 1986. About three fourths of the reporting companies encourage the use of used parts for crash repairs. Most companies rely on the repair shops to obtain parts from reputable sources.

In conclusion, it appears that parts marking and other provisions of the 1984 and 1992 Acts have given the law enforcement community tools they can use to deter thefts, trace stolen vehicles and parts, and apprehend and convict thieves. Theft rates leveled off after 1989-90 and have begun to drop. While the program to reduce auto theft has had an impact, there appear to be four areas with potential room for improvement: (1) Insurance companies and motor vehicle departments could take better advantage of the existing parts marking program by routinely requiring inspection of the markings of used parts acquired at body shops and used vehicles brought in for new titles. The current setup, where some models have parts marking and others do not, may discourage routine inspections. (2) To the extent that current parts markings can be obliterated, their long-term deterrent effect may be diminished. (3) Since many vehicles still do not have marked parts, the deterrent effect of parts marking at this time may be offset by increased thefts of the vehicles without marked parts. (4) Appropriate antitheft devices can substantially reduce all types of thefts, but are currently standard equipment on only a limited number of car lines. However, to the extent that antitheft devices and parts marking are complementary strategies, more extended availability of antitheft devices ought not come at the expense of eliminating parts marking. The best results are likely to be obtained when vehicles have both remedies.