The recently announced fall in recorded crime in the UK over the past year is – at around 9% – fairly substantial. But, as with some other issues, notably immigration, public perception of crime levels is often at odds with the official statistics.
There are several plausible reasons for this discrepancy: a reduction in police budgets might simply mean that fewer crimes are recorded or investigated, or that people do not trouble themselves to report minor offences.
What’s more, improvements in technology, such as alarms and, perhaps most obviously, the large number of surveillance cameras in the UK, may well be more important than, for example, sentencing policy in tackling crime. The move to digital technology, and improvements in reporting methods for the sale of second-hand goods, also means that (mobile phones aside) there are fewer things which are physically easy and profitable to steal.
But there is one area where there is no question that a real fall in crime rates has occurred, and has played a substantial part in bringing down the overall figures, and that is crime connected with motor vehicles. The fairly short history of the car – it is just 110 years since the crime of “TWOCing” (Taking Without Owner’s Consent) hit the statute books – makes it easy to look at how rapidly things have changed.
Bizarrely, one of the first bits of motoring legislation, introduced in 1928, was to make it illegal to lock your car in central London. The thinking behind this was that vehicles which were causing an obstruction could be moved by the police, but it was soon clear that it was an open invitation to theft, and the law was repealed in 1932.
But from that point, car crime – both theft from cars and stealing the vehicles themselves – rose inexorably. In 1950, there were around 2 million cars registered in Britain; in 1990, there were ten times as many, and car crime accounted for 28% of all recorded offences. In fact, in 1990 alone, car crime increased by 24% on the previous year.
Yet since the 1990s, it has fallen to an historic low. Between 1997 and 2010, car crime in England and Wales more than halved (from more than 1.1 million to less than 460,000), and contributed to the biggest drop in recorded crime since the second world war – coming on for 50%. And almost all of this reduction can be attributed to technology, rather than policing or a sudden improvement in the moral standards of Britain’s criminal classes.
Government played a role, by encouraging the British Standards Institute and motor manufacturers to adopt performance-based standards, and lobbying to have them adopted by EU directive. The extremely high levels of car crime in the 1980s and early 1990s led to a number of Home Office and Department of Transport committees to examine the problem. But the majority of the impact came from car manufacturers’ innovations in security.
From the first locking ignition (introduced by Chrysler in 1949), there have been steady improvements in security, from the fitting of steering column locks (which were mandated as standard in 1971) and more recent developments such as electronic central locking and immobilisers.
The only downside of this steady improvement is that, according to some insurers, some car crime has now been recategorised as burglary. Since it’s now very difficult to steal a modern car without the key (Home Office figures suggest around 85% of thefts involve using the key), the number of burglaries specifically to obtain car keys has increased. The general trend, however, is clear. You’ve never been less likely to have your car stolen.