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How car thefts have changed over time

Having your car stolen or broken into can be a stressful and deeply upsetting experience. All vehicles are at risk of being targeted by criminals looking to make some quick cash or go on a mindless joy-ride. However, as car insurance is a legal requirement for driving on UK roads, you should have access to cover that will help to reimburse you if you are the unfortunate target of vehicle theft.
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Third-party fire and theft (TPFT) is the minimum level of cover allowed in the UK and should cover you if your car is stolen. However, these policies generally won’t cover any personal belongings left inside your car, and won’t cover you for vehicle theft if your car wasn’t secured properly in the first place. Be sure to properly investigate how much cover different policies offer before choosing one, especially if you’re worried about vehicle crime in your area.

As the risk of being targeted by criminals is an unavoidable part of car ownership, Uswitch wanted to assess the state of vehicle crime in the UK and USA. The car insurance experts at Uswitch have looked through the data to present an in-depth study that investigates various facets and factors of this criminal behaviour. 

Vehicle crime rates in the UK

In this section, the research looks at the current levels of vehicle crime in different parts of England and Wales, to reveal which police force areas have the highest rates of vehicle crime, as well as whether these rates are rising or falling compared to five years ago.

The 10 police areas with the highest rate of vehicle crime

1. London (Metropolitan Police), Vehicle Crimes per 10,000 People: 113.0

London has the highest rate of vehicle crimes per head with 113.0 reported per 10,000 people.

2. West Midlands, Vehicle Crimes per 10,000 People: 87.0

The West Midlands have the third-highest rate of vehicle crime in the England and Wales, with 87.0 crimes per 10,000 people in the area.

3. Greater Manchester, Vehicle Crimes per 10,000 People: 79.6

The place with the third highest rate of vehicle crime in the country is Greater Manchester, where there were 79.6 reported crimes per 10,000 people.

The 10 police areas with the lowest rate of vehicle crime

1. Dyfed-Powys, Vehicle Crimes per 10,000 People: 12.1

The area covering the Welsh regions of Dyfed and Powys has the lowest rate of vehicle crime in the country, standing at 12.1 crimes per 10,000 people.

2. Cumbria, Vehicle Crimes per 10,000 People: 14.1

The far north-western region of Cumbria has the second-lowest rate of vehicle crime in England and Wales at 14.1 offences per 10,000 residents.

3. North Wales, Vehicle Crimes per 10,000 People: 15.2

In third place is North Wales, which recorded a vehicle crime rate of 15.2 per 10,000 people, showing Wales to be a particularly safe part of the country for car owners.

Vehicle crime in England and Wales drops 8.70% in 5 years, but how do regions compare? 

From 2016 to 2021, national vehicle crime numbers fell by 8.70% from 365,037 to 336,650. This shows that overall, England and Wales are becoming safer places for car owners and vehicle crime is becoming less prevalent. This could, in part, be due to people staying at home more often in the last few years due to coronavirus, so people have not been leaving their vehicles in unsecure places during the day. However, how does this national decrease compare to local levels of vehicle crime?

Police areas with the biggest decrease in vehicle crime

Here the research reveals which police forces recorded the biggest reduction in vehicle crime over the last five years, indicating that they are quickly becoming much safer places for owning a vehicle.

1. North Wales, Change in Vehicle Crime: -48.3%

North Wales has seen the biggest reduction in vehicle crime in the last 5 years, with the number of offences falling by 48.3% to 1,061 in the year to March 2021. 

2. Cumbria, Change in Vehicle Crime: -44.5%

The second-biggest reduction in vehicle crime was seen in Cumbria, which recorded 44.5% fewer offences in the year to March 2021 than in the period leading up to March 2016.

3.Humberside, Change in Vehicle Crime: -42.9%

Humberside has seen the third biggest fall in vehicle crime, with a 42.9% reduction in offences for the year to March 2021 when compared with crime levels five years prior.

The police areas where vehicle crime has been rising

Unfortunately, vehicle crime is not falling across the entire country and the research shows which police forces have seen a rise in the number of vehicle offences since 2016.

1. Metropolitan Police, Change in Vehicle Crime: 22.1%

The Metropolitan Police saw the biggest increase in vehicle crime anywhere in the country, with numbers rising by as much as 22.1%, reinforcing the notion that London is a particularly risky place when it comes to vehicle crime.

2. Surrey, Change in Vehicle Crime: 21.2%

Surrey has seen the second-largest rise in vehicle crime over the last five years, with the number of offences increasing by 21.2%. The county’s close proximity to London might explain this increase, as the capital has revealed itself to be a hotbed of vehicle crime.

3. Hertfordshire, Change in Vehicle Crime: 10.2%

Another county bordering London, Hertfordshire has experienced the third-largest increase in vehicle crime with offence numbers rising by 10.2% compared to levels five years ago.

Vehicle crime since Covid-19

Comparing vehicle crime statistics between the year to March 2020 (pre-covid) and the year to March 2021 (covid), we can see that there has been a sizeable reduction in vehicle crime in every part of the country during the pandemic. 

Overall, vehicle crime has reduced nation-wide by 27.13% with over 100,000 fewer crimes being recorded during the first year of the pandemic.

The area with the biggest decrease in vehicle crime was North Wales, where the number of crimes shrank by 45.53%. Humberside and Cheshire saw the next biggest decreases in vehicle crime of 42.70% and 42.15% respectively.

Where do most car thefts take place?

In this section, Uswitch looked at the best and worst places to leave your car, based on figures for where most vehicle thefts take place.

The most common places for vehicle thefts

Below you can see which places see the most vehicle thefts. The categories cover leaving your car at home, at work and in other locations when you’re out and about. These categories are further divided into varying levels of privacy to indicate what kinds of places are most frequently targeted by car thieves.

The vast majority of stolen cars are taken while parked at the owner’s home, with semi-private parking facilities being the car thief’s favourite target, having accounted for as much as 38.93% of vehicle thefts in the year to March 2020. Cars parked on the street outside the owner’s home are the second most likely to be stolen, having accounted for 26.58% of vehicle thefts.

What are the most common times for car thieves to strike?

There are also times of the day or days of the week that are markedly more common for vehicle thefts to take place. By avoiding busy times, car thieves hope to commit their crimes without anybody noticing, which is why upgrading your vehicle’s security system can be a wise move.

The most common times for vehicle thefts

The research looks at the rate of car thefts on different days of the week and at different times of day over the past ten years, to reveal what are the riskiest times for car thefts, and how has this changed over the years.

Car thefts are much more likely to occur at the weekend than during the week, with over three quarters (75.53%) of incidents taking place on Saturday or Sunday in the year to March 2020. This has actually increased since March 2010, when the weekend rate was 55.79%.

It also appears that car thieves are becoming more brazen, with a significantly larger proportion of thefts occurring in broad daylight than ten years ago. In 2010, 79.41% of car thefts occurred at night, though in 2020 this figure had shrunk by 27.16% to 57.85%.

In this section, the research looks at several factors that profile what vehicle thieves are targeting, such as the age of stolen vehicles and the most common items to be stolen from cars. The research also takes a look at the recovery rate for stolen vehicles to see how likely you are to see your car again in the event that it is taken.

The age of stolen vehicles

In the year to March 2020, 1-5 year old vehicles were the most popular targets for thieves, accounting for as many as 37.05% of car thefts. The second most popular targets were much older vehicles aged 10 years or more, which made up 32.60% of car thefts. Meanwhile, the smallest age bracket for car thefts is new models that are less than a year old, having accounted for as few as 4.02% of thefts.

The proportion of stolen vehicles returned to their owner

The data shows that in the year to March 2020, the vast majority of stolen cars are never recovered, with only 27.63% being returned to their rightful owners.

However, of those cars that are returned to their rightful owners, a much higher proportion were returned intact in 2020 than in 2010. In 2010 just 14.96% of returned stolen vehicles had suffered no damage, while in 2020 this figure had risen by 247.83% to 52.02%. 

So, while it may be unlikely that you’ll see your car again if it is stolen, if you are lucky enough to have it returned, then the odds are that it will have sustained no serious damage.

The most common items stolen from vehicles

Below you can see a wide range of items that are frequently stolen from parked cars, along with their share of thefts in 2020.

Valuables, such as money and wallets, were the most commonly stolen items from vehicles in 2020, accounting for 38.84% of all item thefts. Other commonly stolen items include exterior fittings taken from the car itself, electrical equipment, and tools. 

Vehicle security and methods of theft

All cars come with a few safety features designed to make life more difficult for the budding car thief. Unfortunately, the combination of locked doors, loud alarms and the need for a key are not always enough to dissuade the persistent criminal. 

While the use of additional security measures such as wheel locks and tracking technology can help to keep your vehicle safe, it will not make it immune from the designs of the petty car thief. 

With that in mind, this section will focus on the security features present in stolen cars, as well as look at the various methods used by thieves to steal cars and their contents.

This data also suggests that those security measures that see an increase in crime are no longer an effective method to counter the modern car thief.

The security precaution that has seen the biggest rise in use in stolen vehicles is the tracking device, having experienced a 157.49% increase since 2010. This is good news for victims of car theft as having a tracking device installed makes it much more possible for authorities to locate and return your vehicle, as well as boosting their chances of catching the thieves responsible.

Immobilisers and mechanical security precautions have seen a reduction in their presence in stolen vehicles, though whether this is due to their effectiveness or the continuous march of technology it is difficult to say.

The most common methods used to steal vehicles

In 2020, the most common method of entry to a vehicle for car thieves was by manipulating the signal from a remote locking device. Despite this method being relatively new, with no data available for it prior to 2018/19, it currently accounts for 35.85% of cases. This is an example of technological solutions to simple problems causing more issues than those they solve. Sometimes simpler is just better, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The second-highest proportion of vehicle break-ins were achieved by the thief using a key or electric fob, while the third-highest is due to the car simply being left unlocked. These two methods of entry suggest that car owners could take greater care when locking their vehicles and storing their car keys in safe places.

The cost of vehicle crime in the England and Wales

Having your belongings stolen can be an expensive ordeal, especially if you don’t have the right insurance cover. Equally, the damage sustained to your vehicle during an attempted theft can be very costly to rectify. In this section, the car insurance experts at Uswitch take a closer look at the most common cost of damages that vehicle crime inflicts on victims.

The cost of items stolen from vehicles

This section looks specifically at the value of items stolen from vehicles or left inside vehicles that were themselves stolen. The values are presented in price brackets alongside mean and median costs for the year to March 2020.

Fortunately, the value bracket of stolen goods which was most common in 2020 is the smallest, with 38.70% of item losses being worth under £50. However, the second most common price bracket is £100-£500, reflecting the high proportion of valuables and electronics which are stolen from vehicles.

The cost of damage to vehicles in incidents of theft

Aside from the value of stolen goods as a result of vehicle crime, car owners can also be left with huge bills to repair the damage inflicted on their vehicles. 

The most common cost of damage to vehicles in instances of theft is between £100 and $499, accounting for 46.03% of cases. Thankfully, the lowest cost brackets are also the second and third most common, with damages costing under £50 in 21.42% of cases and between £50 and £99 15.35% of the time.

Vehicle theft in the USA

Starting off in the USA, the car insurance experts at Uswitch take a look at the overall levels of vehicle theft in the country from 1990 to 2020, as well as individual vehicle theft rates for every state.

National vehicle theft rates over 30 years

Here you can see how vehicle theft rates have changed over the last 30 years. The research shows the vehicle theft rate per 100,000 people in 5 year intervals, as well as presenting the overall change for this 3 decade period.

The overarching trend is that vehicle theft rates are on the decline in the USA. Since 1990, the rate of vehicle thefts per 100,000 people has fallen by 62.60%, a decline of almost two thirds. However, there does appear to have been a small increase since 2015, with the rate jumping from 222.2 incidents per 100,000 to 246, equalling a 10.71% rise.

The top states for vehicle theft

1. Colorado, Vehicle Thefts per 100,000 Inhabitants: 524.3

Colorado is the state with the highest rate of vehicle theft in the whole of the United States, with 524.3 vehicle thefts per 100,000 inhabitants. This is almost 100 thefts more than the next highest state, showing that Coloradoans might benefit from comprehensive car insurance that protects against all forms of vehicle theft.

2. New Mexico & California, Vehicle Thefts per 100,000 Inhabitants: 427.6

Tied for second place are New Mexico and California, both of which recorded 427.6 vehicle thefts per 100,000 inhabitants. This means that, along with Colorado, the three worst states for vehicle theft all lie within the Southwest quarter of the United States.

States with the lowest rates of vehicles theft

At the other end of the scale are the states with the lowest rates of vehicle theft per head. These states are the safest places for your vehicle, though we would still recommend using all available security features and being fully insured. After all, you can never be too safe!

1. Vermont, Vehicle Thefts per 100,000 Inhabitants: 42.4

Vermont came top of the pile with the lowest rate of vehicle thefts in the country at just 42.4 for every 100,000 inhabitants. This northern state managed a rate of vehicle theft so low that it puts many other parts of the country to shame.

2. Maine, Vehicle Thefts per 100,000 Inhabitants: 63.8

In second place is the most northeastern state in the country, Maine, which scored an impressively low rate of 63.8 vehicle thefts per 100,000 inhabitants.

3. New Hampshire, Vehicle Thefts per 100,000 Inhabitants: 76.4

Third place is taken by yet another northeastern state, New Hampshire, which recorded as few as 76.4 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. 

Interestingly, these results reveal that safest places for vehicles are in the northeastern part of the country, while the states with the highest rates of vehicle theft are at the opposite end of the USA, in the southwest.

How to keep your vehicle safe from car thieves

Uswitch.com car insurance expert, Florence Codjoe says:

“There are several easy ways in which you can help to keep your car secure and deter potential thieves from stealing it. I’ve put together some of our top vehicle security tips below."

1. Make sure your keys are kept in a secure place. Many people keep their car keys by their front door, either hanging up or on the side. This is not advisable as thieves only need to enter your home for a few seconds to snatch your car keys and make off with your vehicle. Instead, keep them out of sight in a separate room.”

2. Keep your windows fully closed when not using your car. Again, leaving your vehicle as secure as possible is extremely important. Keeping car windows fully shut, even on hot days, reduces the likelihood that thieves will be able to gain access to it, and makes your car a much less tempting target.

3. Use a tracking device to locate your vehicle in the event of theft. While this might not prevent your car from being stolen in the first place, it will drastically improve the chances of your vehicle being recovered. Without a tracking device, it can be very difficult for authorities to locate your missing vehicle, so it’s well worth the investment!

4. Leave your car in gear with the wheels directed towards the curb. Not only will this make it much more difficult for car thieves to tow your vehicle away, but also acts as a safety measure in the event of another car knocking into yours while it is parked. It also prevents your car from rolling downhill if you park on a slope and your brakes fail.

5. Park in a secure location where possible. The places to park are in garages or gated parking areas. However, these are a luxury that many people do not have access to. Therefore, try and alway park in a well-lit location as close to your home as possible.

6. Use a steering wheel lock to immobilise your car. Steering wheel locks are a highly effective way of keeping your car secure when it's not in use. Not only do they make it incredibly difficult to steal your vehicle, but they are also highly visible to thieves, so they will be put off even making an attempt on your car.

7. Do not leave valuables in plain sight. Thieves are opportunistic by nature, and you don’t want to tempt them into breaking into your car by leaving valuable goods, technology or even money in plain view to passers-by. If you need to leave items in your vehicle, then make sure they are well hidden or covered so as not to draw thieves’ attention.

8. Keep your car doors locked. This might seem obvious to say, but a car left with unlocked doors is an open invitation for thieves to steal it. Many thieves will simply play a numbers game by trying to open as many car doors as possible until they find one that is unlocked.

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