Australian Institute of Criminology

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Opening address

The title of this conference, "Reducing car theft: How low can we go?" asks us to consider ways to make dramatic in-roads into the Incidence of car theft, but also challenges us to be realistic about the sorts of results that can be achieved and the means to achieve it.

Over the last three years the level of car theft has increased. In this State and nationally, car theft was at a peak in the early 1990s and in the following years decreased quite substantially. In the last two years the trend has reversed and in South Australia in the last financial year there was a 14.9% increase over the previous year but there is some small consolation that it is still lower than in 1990/91.

The disappointing aspect of the recent increase in car theft is that the level of coordination between States and agencies, industry and government during this period has been continually improving. We have dramatically improved levels of information through the CARS database, increased collaboration through the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council and the National Anti-Crime Strategy - Lead Ministers forum. At the State and national level we have developed partnerships with the insurance industry, police and local councils. We have launched major education campaigns and websites, providing information to the community about potential risk factors and means to reduce car theft, and local areas at, for example, Modbury Hospital are using tools such as Closed Circuit Television, to target particular hotspots. Police in South Australia and in other jurisdictions have launched major operational campaigns, in SA these are Operation Vigil and Vigil 11 and target both opportunistic and professional car theft. From a research and strategy point of view our knowledge and understanding of car theft has never been greater.

Yet despite all of this work and continuous improvement car theft continues to bump along, at the moment increasing. We do need to ask why? Of course, the high rate of car ownership in Australia is something to be considered, but it is not the reason. Australia is still the second highest ranking nation for motor vehicle theft behind the UK, and is substantially higher than other high car ownership nations like Canada and the United States. We need to ask how can we start to make inroads into the problem? And, are we currently doing the right things?

I am strongly of the opinion that the work I've briefly mentioned, that is currently being carried out across all jurisdictions, is a major step forward. The steps taken over the last few years especially in the area of increased national coordination are likely to be laying the ground work for sustainable improvement in the future. The recognition of risk factors and targeted response measures is consistent across jurisdictions. The information and research needed to accurately target measures is substantially in place and the resolve needed to make steps forward is very much in evidence. While car theft is currently increasing we are making meaningful improvements in the underlying methods to address car theft in the long term.

One of the most important developments over the last few years has been the cooperative work through the National Anti-Crime Strategy and the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council working toward nationally consistent policies. We know that State borders in the past meant new fields of opportunity for professional car thieves, re-birthing and re-selling interstate. It is only through consistent national policies and cooperation between agencies that we can fully address this.

There has been a fairly consistent pattern nationally on the rate of opportunistic vehicle theft compared with the rate of professional vehicle theft - roughly calculated at 80% opportunistic; 20% professional theft. We now know that the level of professional theft does appear to be increasing at a greater rate than opportunistic theft. One means to address this trend is developing nationally consistent Written Off Vehicle Registers across jurisdictions which can then be flagged through the National Exchange of Vehicle and Driver Information Systems. This is a central element to information exchange between jurisdictions and while there are some delays in the full implementation of this program it will be an important long term tool. A second means to address professional vehicle theft is working with manufacturers to improve compliance plates and vehicle identification so that it is more difficult for thieves to transfer them from one vehicle to another. Work is being done to design a cost competitive system of vehicle identification to assist industry put a viable and workable system in place.

Building partnerships between industry and government to address the problem of car theft is vital, and the assistance of the retiring chairman of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council, Leon Daphne, has been instrumental in making significant progress.

The level of success and cooperation with industry in the area of immobilisers has been encouraging. About 95% of new passenger vehicles have immobilisers as standard; while it is not the 100% we are working towards, it is a very significant step forward in just a few short years. A new Australia Design Rule for immobilisers will come into operation on 1 July 2001, requiring all vehicles made in or coming into Australia to be fitted with an immobiliser. The next area for improved use of immobilisers is in the coverage of light commercial vehicles and, I am sure industry will recognise the value of improving coverage in this area.

A significant aspect of the national approach is the CARS database coordinated by the South Australian Office of Crime Statistics, providing hitherto unheard of levels of research data. We will soon have nationally consistent and reliable data. We will know details of locations, times, method of theft, recovery rates, difference between makes and models, differences between jurisdictions, suburbs and streets and a variety of other information to assist us better to understand the circumstances of theft and the consequences.

Crime statistics are, of course, somewhat impersonal. We must not forget that each number in the statistics represents a victim, with consequences for his or her family, the offender and, ultimately, us all through insurance premiums and the criminal justice system.

But, statistics do provide us with ways to really help people from becoming victims in the first instance and with ways to prevent re-victimisation. Improvements in research and information have helped to develop meaningful education campaigns about car theft risk factors. People are often surprised to learn that where we know the means of entry, 30% of cars have been stolen where the keys were in the ignition, or the doors left open, or even the car engine running. We also know about the risk older vehicles face and the relative usefulness of immobilisers, alarms and steering wheel locks. The National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council is investing in national education campaigns, to encourage owners of older vehicles to fit engine immobilisers. The campaign started in Victoria and Tasmania following Western Australia's lead in this area. South Australia is currently running a campaign on the risks faced by older vehicles. The community is now getting a very large amount of accurate information to help it to avoid the known risk factors.

The national and State research now available is very sensitive to the needs of local areas. In South Australia, the Local Crime Prevention Committee Program is supported with State Government funding in fourteen local government areas. Each area is funded to employ a crime prevention officer, and roving officers work with several other unfunded local areas. Car theft has been a targeted crime in a number of the programs. Three in particular, Port Lincoln, Port Pirie and Tea Tree Gully have put specific local strategies in place and have reported significantly decreased incidence of car theft, which does go against State and national trends. These areas have strong local programs using the research provided by our Crime Prevention Unit and CARS and using volunteers and local community support. Local programs such as this do appear to make an impact.

I was recently at a major shopping centre in Tea Tree Gully launching one of its programs targeting drug education in schools, and was able to meet its car theft program volunteers who where staffing a Crime Prevention Committee Carsafe display in the shopping centre. Volunteers who are an integral part of the programme, were handing out the Carsafe brochures and "in-car" display notices that valuables had been removed. This high public profile is a very important key to the work of the program, giving the community information and personal support.

More recently, I visited the Modbury Hospital in the same Tea Tree Gully council area, where the use of CCTV has helped reduce car theft from its car park from an average of about 50 cars per year to about 12. This was one of the State's car theft hotspots and the Hospital was so pleased with the result that it actually purchased the cameras, with the funds being returned to the Crime Prevention Program to purchase further cameras that could be used in other areas of the city.

I am a very strong supporter of local government and local communities playing a strong role in crime prevention strategies being developed for their communities. Building community awareness at national, State and local levels is vital if we are to be successful in targeting car theft and motor vehicle based crime. But so, also, is the need to identify why people steal cars and how that offending behaviour can be changed. I note that on your agenda is a report on the innovative Street Legal project in South Australia. Hopefully, that will provide insights into how we can better prevent offending, particularly by young people.

Earlier I said we needed to ask tough questions to ensure we are on the right track. Car theft has recently been increasing, but in my view we are working in a constructive and positive way to address the problem of car theft. The work and strategies must be applied right across the community, at all levels of government, in partnership with key industry groups, such as manufacturers and insurance, and across Jurisdictions.

How low can we go? I am confident that with the spirit of cooperation and commitment we now have we will significantly reduce car theft for the long term.

I have pleasure in officially opening "Reducing Car Theft: How Low Can We Go?"