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Danielle Smith: Alberta car theft problem needs 3-step solution

A frame of video depicts an Edmonton man discovering a would-be thief in his vehicle and attempting to drag him out. Supplied

The Alberta Motor Association launched a public service campaign this week designed to stop car thefts. It’s good, as far as it goes, but much more is going to be needed.

The Lock it or Lose it campaign is a great way to reduce your own chance of being targeted. It has some common sense suggestions: don’t leave valuables within view in your car; don’t leave your vehicle unlocked with your keys in the ignition; use a remote starter so it disables if a would-be thief switches it into gear and use a lock bar on the steering wheel.

According to AMA spokesperson Jeff Kasbrick, as many as 40 to 50 per cent of vehicles are stolen because they are left unlocked while they are idling. Flipping that statistic around though, it means that 50 to 60 per cent of vehicles are stolen anyway, regardless of the precautions people take. That means other steps are needed.

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LISTEN: AMA’s Jeff Kasbrick discusses the Lock it or Lose It campaign.

READ MORE: Number of vehicle thefts in Alberta ‘staggering’: AMA

Insp. Joe Brar heads the division of the Calgary Police Service (CPS) responsible for auto thefts. He said they have a sergeant and eight constables devoted to targeting the “prolific” thieves and another four-person team going after vehicles destined for resale.

There is some good news: of the 5,700 cars stolen in Calgary last year, 90 per cent of them were found and returned. The condition of vehicles ranged from slightly damaged to total write-offs. But that is a pretty good resolution rate.

Still, the problem is particularly bad in Alberta. Of all the cars stolen in Canada last year, Alberta accounted for 29 per cent of them. I asked Brar why Alberta has a rate of auto theft that is three times higher than elsewhere in the country. He doesn’t know, but he is trying to find out.

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I asked if there were any other jurisdictions that had a similar problem and solved it, where we could copy some of the solutions. That’s also on his list to research.

LISTEN: Insp. Joe Brar with CPS discusses the alarming number of car thefts

READ MORE: RCMP arrest man after string of vehicle thefts in Cochrane and Calgary

Turns out we may not have to look too far for some ideas. A listener sent me an article written by Rick Linden of the University of Manitoba after Winnipeg saw a surge in stolen vehicles. Auto theft tripled in 1993 and peaked at 3,000 per 100,000 population in November 2004.  Putting it in perspective, Calgary’s rate of 5,700 thefts in a city of 1.2 million people is the equivalent of 461 per 100,000 population.

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Things escalated to the point where innocent bystanders were killed and injured after being run down by thieves driving stolen cars. The police tried bait cars, fingerprinting recovered vehicles, suspending the licences of convicted car thieves. None of it worked.

What they discovered was that stealing cars had become a part of youth culture for joy riding and excitement and that kids as young as 10 years old were becoming prolific at it.

The solution was three-fold:

  1. Intensive supervision of offenders which involved curfews, daily visits, and phone contact every three hours.
  2. Working with youths to get their lives on track through partnerships with groups such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
  3. Electronic immobilizers on the most at-risk vehicles, then ultimately on all vehicles.

The results speak for themselves. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of thefts decreased 83.5 per cent.

One listener –  I’ll call him “Doug” – was a thief in his teen years. Here is why he said he did it:

“When I was a teen, I easily stole over 100 cars.  Me and my friends [sic] would steal sometimes two to four cars a night. Most of the time it was for transportation. Often it was just because we were bored. After a handful of thefts, we got pretty good at stealing them – to the point that keys were the least of our worries.”
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WATCH BELOW: Spike in crime prompts Calgary police to release dramatic helicopter footage of ‘reckless’ car thefts

Click to play video 'Spike in crime prompts Calgary police to release dramatic helicopter footage of ‘reckless’ car thefts' Spike in crime prompts Calgary police to release dramatic helicopter footage of ‘reckless’ car thefts
Spike in crime prompts Calgary police to release dramatic helicopter footage of ‘reckless’ car thefts – Jan 12, 2017

He confirmed the only real defence to stop your car from being stolen is a hidden kill switch. He also talked about what it took to make him stop.

“The problem isn’t car thefts or where you leave your keys; the problem lies with the people stealing them. Their situations are usually poverty or addictions. Once we address that, you will see a noticeable decrease,” he said.

“The death of a close friend of mine and the birth of my first child put me on the right side of the road. I wouldn’t even consider doing anything like that today. It took those events in my life to turn me around. The healing begins at home. That’s the only place we will be able to address these issues.”

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The good news is, it can be turned around. Let’s hope it doesn’t get a whole lot worse before we do.

Danielle Smith can be reached at danielle@newstalk770.com