There has been some interest expressed about car thefts -- and the kinds of automobile security systems available -- so with the license Dr. Gridlock sometimes takes to plunge into tangential matters, let's take a look.
"Whenever a person drives out of a showroom, he's subject to being a victim. If your car looks nice to you, it will appeal to a car thief, too," said D.C. police spokesman Daniel Straub. "The people we're trying to get a message to have no protection whatever."
There have been 14,045 auto thefts in the metropolitan area in the first six months of the year. Prince George's County had the most, with the District next and Fairfax, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties each with over 1,000 thefts in that time.
In the city, the typical thief is a teenager who wants a nice car for a weekend, something to impress the girls, or perhaps something more economical for day- to-day transportation. Older criminals often steal cars to commit crimes, then dump them. Then there are simple matters of convenience:
"We've had people try to steal cars inside the parking lot at the police station," said Straub, who has done a tour with the District's car theft squad. "We had a guy charged with a crime and released on personal recognizance. He was caught again trying to steal a car to go home. We've had other guys steal cars to go to court appointments."
Even more unusual are some of the thefts that can occur in parking lots and garages, places where people put their cars every work day, faithfully turning over keys to an attendant:
"Two guys knew an attendant and borrowed a car during the day," Straub recalled. "They went out and robbed a bank and checked the car back in before the end of the day, and the owner had the FBI waiting for him when he got home."
Then there was the thief who showed up 45 minutes before a lot opened, posed as an attendant, accepted the keys for a $45,000 Porsche, and as soon as the owner was out of sight, promptly drove off.
What's a body to do? If gridlock doesn't wear you down, somebody takes your wheels.
The first pointer is to lock the car. According to police, roughly a third of area thefts are of unlocked cars. Police and the American Automobile Association add these tips, most of them obvious, but often ignored in haste:
Park in well-lighted areas. Don't leave packages and valuables in view. Carry registration and license with you. Never leave the title in the car (criminals can deed themselves the car and get new tags). Don't hide a spare key in the glove compartment, under the seat, on the visor or behind the bumper. Install tapered door lock buttons. Don't leave the window open even slightly. Park close to a building, where someone might see a thief tampering with your car.
D.C. police decline to recommend any particular anti-theft system. "There is no theft system that is foolproof, but the more protection on a car, the better," Straub said. The systems can range from an inexpensive device to sophisticated systems costing several hundred dollars.
The starting point is something called a J-Bar. It costs somewhere between $10 and $30 and is a bar bent like the letter J at each end. One end hooks behind the brake pedal and the other end hooks over the bottom of the steering wheel. The device is drawn tight and locked with a key. It takes only a few seconds to put it on.
Phillip Ball, a Washington Post security guard, has one on his car, a Chevrolet Nova, as shown in the photograph above. He believes it has helped him keep the car. Recently, several teenage girls broke into the car, used some kind of tool to start the car and tried to drive it away. They moved slowly up a hill, unable to turn or brake, and fled when Ball, alerted by neighbors, approached.
Another device, perhaps a little sturdier and costing $30 to $50, is called the Club. It fits horizontally across the steering wheel and prevents someone from turning. It also can be put in place in seconds, police say.
The J-Bar and the Club can be obtained at most car accessory stores. "Thieves can work around them, but in most cases they will not take the time," Straub said. "The last thing a thief wants is to devote time and energy to stealing a car. They want to be in and out of an area before detectives arrive."
More sophisticated systems set off alarms when they detect pressure or motion inside or outside the car. The active system can be set by remote control or by turning a key. Passive systems are armed automatically, usually about 30 seconds after the driver leaves the car.
Most systems sound the horn or alarm sirens, and some flash lights. Some come with disabling mechanisms that shut down the engine, or stall it after an intruder tries to drive away.
AAA has written several articles about the more sophisticated anti-theft devices in its World Magazine. Reprints can be obtained by calling 703-AAA-8200.
One of the more recent arrivals is called a LoJack system. The LoJack Corp., of Needham, Mass., for a fee installs a transceiver somewhere in the car and registers the vehicle identification number with area police. When a vehicle with that number is reported stolen, police can activate the transmitting device and squad cars equipped with LoJack tracking computers can home in on the signal. The company claims a 95 percent recovery rate with an average of two hours' recovery time. The system is used in several states but is not yet available in the metropolitan area.
As for those parking lot attendants, police advise that people try to get to know the attendants and park at the same place when possible.
If you've had any illuminating experiences on this subject, or have some other tips on how to thwart thieves, feel free to pass them along. In Traffic, Courtesy Counts
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I have found that when cars or trucks are approaching an area to either go on or off the Beltway, they are bumper-to-bumper with the vehicle in front of them. Why? They aren't thinking about anyone except themselves.
It also would appear that many Beltway drivers do the same thing.
When this happens, traffic backs up, and everyone waits for a chance to move.
Frustration? You bet, and it isn't long before some nut is driving on the shoulder to "beat the traffic." A good example of what I'm talking about occurs around 7 a.m. when cars are coming off Route 50 in Virginia to get onto the Beltway.
My solution would be to educate area drivers to what "alternate feed" is, make it mandatory, and present anyone with a heavy fine if they do not observe it. E.C. ROOK JR. Alexandria
We've all had that grinding, left-out feeling when streams of cars make it a point not to let any car in.
Police already have enough trouble enforcing the traffic laws that exist. But if more people practiced taking turns, it would seem gridlock would be that much more bearable, rather than that much more wear and tear on the soul.
On the Lookout for Cyclists
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I have driven for 32 years and own a motorcycle, a bicycle, two automobiles and I drive a commuter van. I also have taken instruction from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation for driving two-wheelers. I have a few comments about the letter entitled "two-wheeled terrorists," from the perspective of driving both two- and four-wheelers.
Failure of motorists to see cyclists in traffic is the predominant cause of cycling accidents. The automobile driver frequently does not look for a cycle. I look for cyclists because I am a cyclist.
The bicyclist who wrote that he enhances his safety by going through red lights a few seconds before cars move out on green could attribute his zero accident record to a nanosecond, pre-impact scream from one of my van passengers.
While I was making a legal left-hand turn across oncoming traffic and pedestrians crossing to my left, he ran a red light to my right. His bicycle and bones were saved by the grace of God and a woman he will never meet.
That bicyclist demands that his rights be respected. What will happen to my rights as a motorist to drive, or buy insurance, or drive myself to work after he is crunched under my wheels?
Will he sue me while he is exercising his rights by being irresponsible, or will he waive his rights knowing that he was wrong? Considering his comments regarding "angry" motorists, I doubt that he would be so charitable.
I suggest to that bicyclist that he should respect the rights of his fellow commuters by being a little more courteous and by obeying the law. Perhaps he will find that there will be fewer angry motorists. ROGER DOMER Silver Spring
Off the Path, Into the Roadway
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
On Sept. 7, Mary Bell asked why she sees bicycles in the roadway when bike paths are provided.
What drivers need to understand is that there are many legitimate reasons that a cyclist may choose not to use a bike path, and may even be in the middle or left side of a lane.
If the path is like some of the lanes in D.C., just to the left of parked cars, the bicyclist will be riding through the driver's side door arcs of the cars.
That is a guaranteed way to get seriously injured or killed.
Although drivers are supposed to check the roadway before opening doors, they rarely do so. Their kids in the back seat never do.
A second problem is that cars making right turns from the right lane tend to do so regardless of the bike lane. Again, it does not occur to them to check for the presence of bikes to their right.
A bicyclist who approaches any intersection without ensuring that he is in front or to the left of all traffic that could turn right also is guaranteed to get hit, sooner or later.
The third problem with these bike lanes (and some bike paths) is that they often are provided only on one side of the street, so bikes must ride opposite the direction of traffic. Drivers almost never look for such bikes.
Sure, drivers know they should look both ways before turning, but few drivers actually do this when making right turns.
Other problems with bike paths have to do with maintenance. Since bicyclists represent such a small percentage of voters, bikeways rarely get adequate attention. Remember, 3/4-inch tires at 100 psi or greater need a good road surface. Potholes are no mere annoyance; they are a danger to life and limb.
Paths can be made useful to bicycle commuters. But to do this, they must be constructed and maintained to the standards of the Washington & Old Dominion bike path.
This is simply impossible for a city that was designed before the existence of either autos or bikes, unless very expensive bike overpasses and flyovers are constructed, as on the Custis and Mount Vernon trails.
So, drivers, when you see a bike commuter on the roadway, please understand that he's not riding there just to inconvenience you. Try bike commuting yourself, and you'll begin to appreciate why paths cannot always be used.
On the other hand, if you see a bike messenger in your way, give him lots of room. If he's in that business, he's psychotic, and should be left alone. CHRISTOPHER BIOW Sterling
We can't do too much to pay more attention to the needs of bicycle commuters, lest we all choke in automobile exhaust.
Dr. Gridlock appears in Metro 2 each Friday. You can suggest topics by writing (please don't phone) to DR. GRIDLOCK, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers.