The Alarming Truth

Car alarms don't deter criminals, and they're a public nuisance. Why are they still so common?

Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

In the animated TV show Rick and Morty, there is a car-security system that keeps passengers safe by inflicting psychological warfare on, and then destroying, anyone who so much as approaches the vehicle. That fictional system, as anyone who’s ever woken up to a car alarm blasting at 3 a.m. knows, is only slightly more irritating than the real ones.

Car alarms, it turns out, do very little of what they’re intended to do. For one thing, they are supposed to sniff out thieves, but plenty go off when a leaf floats down onto a windshield or a gust of wind blows. If two analyses done in the 1990s still hold, 95 to 99 percent of all car-alarm triggerings are literally false alarms. “Frankly, I think they’re a waste of money,” said Dr. Peter Frise, the director of AUTO21, a Canadian government-funded research group on the auto industry.

Perhaps because of that, car-security experts say, people rarely pay them any mind, rendering them even less effective. Since blaring alarms usually mean someone accidentally bumped into a vehicle, or even just happened to play loud music down the street, an alarm rarely means an actual theft is taking place. Besides, if a thief really is trying to steal a vehicle, who wants to approach a potentially dangerous criminal? “You have a car thief attacking your car. You’re going to run out, and you’re going to do… what?” asked Reg Phillips, a vehicle-security expert who works with the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators. “What is in that car that’s worth getting hurt over?” (Of course, one could call the police instead.)

Moreover, a blaring alarm might scare off a first-time joyrider, but they’re a non-issue for most professional thieves, who can clip a few wires and silence an alarm with ease. Indeed, one 1997 analysis found that cars with alarms “show no overall reduction in theft losses.”

Worse, car alarms may be affecting the health of the people around them when they go off. A report from Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle-advocacy organization, estimated that New York’s car alarms lead to about $400 to $500 million per year in “public-health costs, lost productivity, decreased property value, and diminished quality of life.” An estimate from an organization whose stated goal is “to reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile” should be taken with a grain of salt, but the point still stands that car-alarm sounds are stress-inducing and sleep-interrupting.

So if car alarms don’t work, how did they become ubiquitous in the first place? While the first car alarm was developed about a century ago and more or less resembles the alarms still in use today, the technology didn’t become truly widespread until the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time when, according to Phillips, neighbors might have been more likely to come to the aid of a besieged vehicle. Over time, though, people grew to ignore them, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when urban crime rates increased and even more drivers started installing them. From around that time, there is even an account of a thief using a siren to cover up the sound of a car’s windows getting shattered. Nowadays, the streets are still teeming with older cars whose loud, obnoxious anti-theft measures reflect the eras during which they were built.

Today, very few cars roll out of factories equipped with car alarms. For example, a spokesperson for Toyota, currently the world’s largest automaker, says that alarms are not standard in their cars. (Currently, the federal government doesn’t require carmakers to take many anti-theft precautions, other than mandating that they differentiate the key combinations for different vehicles and mark various parts of their cars with vehicle identification numbers.)

That said, many drivers today still elect to purchase car alarms separately from aftermarket vendors, so they are not exactly dying off. Further, one of the car-security experts I spoke to told me that most alarms are purchased aftermarket, only to email me shortly afterward saying that he actually wasn’t sure if they were being installed in factories—demonstrating a confusion about alarms’ provenance that does not bode well for ridding the world of them.

Another thing keeping them around is that they’re cheap. At their cheapest they cost about $20 to $30, which is far less expensive than the more-sophisticated immobilization systems that are built into most cars today. Those can cost around $500, and make sure that the engine won’t start unless a vehicle’s key is inserted. (Digital chips are embedded into these keys, which is why many car keys are so expensive to replace.)

Given all this, Frise says that companies that sell loud car alarms almost certainly know that their products are ineffective. “If nobody bought them,” he said, “they’d stop making them. It’s the old supply-and-demand thing.”

* * *

For a time, the Canadian city of Winnipeg had the highest rate of auto thefts per capita in North America—higher than those of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Between 2003 and 2008, vehicle thefts cost Winnipeg $40 million a year, and auto thieves, who were typically reckless, were a serious danger to residents. “Everybody in the city had either had their car stolen or knew someone who’d had their car stolen,” said Rick Linden, a University of Manitoba sociology professor.

Car theft was deeply embedded in Winnipeg’s teen culture. Peers pressured each other to steal cars, usually for joyriding. Thieves were quite young, stealing their first cars, on average, at age 13. There were even reports of 10-year-olds stealing cars with screwdrivers. “Auto theft is an activity for them,” one government informant explained in a report funded by Canada’s National Crime Prevention Centre. “Somehow it got started, and now it’s just what they do. In one neighborhood, they play pickup hockey. In this neighborhood, they steal cars.”

According to Linden, some families had three generations of auto thieves, and the problem was especially acute among young men from indigenous families. “They are by far the most disadvantaged residents of our city,” explained Linden.

The police started addressing the auto-theft problem in 2001, but nothing they did seemed to work. In 2005, a group of sociologists, led by Linden, stepped in with a set of recommendations and advised the city as it wrote up a plan called the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy.

The plan addressed auto theft with several different techniques. First, the city required the owners of at-risk vehicles to get immobilization systems, which insurance companies paid for. These were more expensive than standard car alarms, but much less expensive than reimbursing customers for stolen vehicles. Second, the plan initiated the monitoring of what it called “high-rate offenders”—probation officers were to do what they could to keep repeat offenders in check, sometimes calling them as often as every few hours. The last piece of the puzzle was youth programming. The task force worked with organizations such as Big Brothers to develop counseling and substance-abuse programs.

It worked. Auto thefts in Winnipeg dropped by 84 percent over five years, according to a National Crime Prevention Centre report, and the city started saving $30 million per year. The program paid for itself; as of 2010, the government had invested $52 million in the programs and saved $90 million.

While the incessant phone calls were probably pretty irritating for those teens, Linden found that high-rate offenders committed fewer crimes when they were monitored. Linden estimates this tactic was responsible for about 40 to 45 percent of the decrease in thefts. Immobilizers were estimated to be responsible for another 40 to 45 percent, and youth programs helped a little bit, but Linden and his fellow researchers concluded that the offenders needed longer-term programs to stay out of trouble.

Linden was quick to point out that what worked in Winnipeg wouldn’t work everywhere. An area ridden with professional thieves needs a very different solution than one full of impoverished teens who pressure each other to go joyriding.

Still, Winnipeg’s success might offer lessons to other cities trying to cut down on auto theft. Immobilizers, for instance, seem like a pretty good all-around solution, and every security expert I spoke to agreed. (They’re now more or less standard in cars made today.) Frise added that silent car alarms, which give owners the GPS locations of their vehicles without tipping off thieves, might even be more effective, since an owner can use it to find a car even after it’s driven away.

Additionally, it’s telling that Winnipeg was able to address the problem by identifying its source and creating a custom solution, rather than just going at it with brute force tactics like longer sentences and loud alarms. The city found it both cheaper and more effective to treat the problem exactingly and artfully. Instead of just labeling car thieves as bad eggs, Winnipeg’s task force took steps to try and change their habits.

Which brings up a larger point: The city with the highest rate of auto thefts in North America didn’t fix its problem by being “tough on crime” and enacting harsher punishments. Instead, it realized that people tend to think more about short-term gains than long-term consequences—when Winnipeg’s would-be thieves got calls reminding them they’d almost certainly get caught, they stopped stealing. Even beyond auto theft, it’s worth considering if such savvy interventions could reduce all sort of crimes and keep more people out of prison. After all, one of the best ways to cut down on crime is to persuade people not to become criminals in the first place.