Car theft continues to plummet

These are tough times to be a car thief.

The technology that makes cars harder to steal and that has armed police with better tools has reduced vehicle theft to its lowest level since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

Both nationally and in the Washington region, car theft declined yet again in 2011, according to FBI data.

The number of vehicles stolen in the Washington region dropped to 13,658, less than half of what it was in 2005.

In the District, 3,892 vehicles were stolen in 2011, down from 6,793 in 2005; in Maryland, the statewide number was 15,376, dropping from 30,325 in 2005; and in Virginia, 9,106 were stolen statewide, down from 14,857 six years earlier.


The Jeep Cherokee is the most frequently stolen vehicle in Virginia. In the District, it’s the Dodge Caravan, and in Maryland, it’s the Honda Accord. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Motorists shouldn’t allow this bit of good news to lull them into a sense of complacency,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA, the automobile club that compiled the data from federal and insurance industry statistics. “Fifty percent of all stolen vehicles were still left unlocked, and a motor vehicle is still stolen once every 43 seconds in this nation, with losses totaling $4.5 billion in 2011 alone.”

The Dodge Caravan is the most frequently stolen vehicle in the District. In Virginia, it’s the Jeep Cherokee; and in Maryland, it’s the Honda Accord.

Overall in the Washington metropolitan area, 144,509 vehicles were stolen between 2005 and 2011. In Prince George’s County, which for years led the state in number of vehicles stolen, the count dropped by almost 44 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to state statistics. Car thefts dropped by 31 percent during the same period in Montgomery County and by almost 38 percent in Charles County.

Virginia State Police say nearly 82 percent of thefts occur in three areas of the state: Northern Virginia, Tidewater and Richmond.

The decline in thefts has been attributed to a variety of things that make what once was a fairly easy crime far more difficult. Cars now come equipped with high-tech keys and ignition systems, including immobilizers that make it impossible to use traditional hot-wiring. Police can use systems such as OnStar to help them find cars, and some of their patrol vehicles come with equipment that scans license plates of parked vehicles, identifying stolen cars.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, new laws and procedures have made it more challenging for a thief to create phony documents for a stolen vehicle.

Nationwide, vehicle thefts dropped by 3.3 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year. Federal statistics put the number at 715,373 motor vehicles reported stolen that year. Ten years earlier, thieves made off with 1,261,226 vehicles.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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