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Do You Really Need to Lock Your Car?

Most people do. But the Bay Area’s automotive smash-and-grab scene is so intense that some drivers leave their doors open to avoid the expense of replacing broken windows.

Leonid Mamchenkov

Last week, a hardware seller named Kit parked his car in San Francisco’s picturesque Glen Park to pick up some boxes down the street. He was only gone for a moment, but that was enough time for a man to lightning-quick bash a hole in his window and gank his laptop, as seen at 1:30 in this CCTV footage:

“I worked for a paving contractor in San Francisco for 5 years, and have seen the underbelly of the city and know better than to leave my shit in plain view,” says Kit, who prefers not to give his full name. “But fuck, who thinks in ten minutes you’re going to have your shit jacked, especially in Glen Park?”

It was a dismal but not unfamiliar experience for Kit; thieves hit the same car a few years ago while it was parked downtown in a secured lot. “They tried to steal a shopping bag full of shopping bags,” he says. “We know this because they left it next to the vehicle. I mean, who doesn’t want $0.80 of grocery bags?”

Car break-in are a major hassle in many cities, but auto crime seems to have a particular magnetism to the Bay Area. Last year, the region ranked first in the nation for auto theft. The number of smash-and-grabs in San Francisco has risen 31 percent in the last three years, hitting an astonishing 25,899 in 2015—roughly one break-in every 20 minutes.

Locals have responded to the onslaught by developing inventive, sometimes strange deterrents. One resident proscribes parking as high as possible because “crackheads don’t walk uphill.” Some say to keep your car spotless and free of all personal items, including not just iPhone cables but Fritos bags and gum wrappers; others go the opposite route by making the vehicle as filthy and cluttered as possible so thieving scavengers have trouble finding things.

But what if there was another way of preventing some addled stranger from wearing your Fitbit as ankle jewelry, one that’s as elegant as it is effortless? Here it is: Just don’t lock your car.

Leaving your ride open to the world has arguable benefits. One, thieves might be less likely to falcon-punch through a closed window if all they had to do was lift the handle. Another, you’ll never lock yourself out. No less of an automotive luminary than Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi believed in the no-locking system, declaring, “The guys who are going to steal the car, having the door open isn’t going to prevent them from stealing it.” (His brother, Ray, was also a proponent, being “philosophically opposed to locking cars.”)

To see if this counterintuitive strategy is actually effective in preventing theft and auto-glass-replacement expense, I talked with several locksmiths and auto industry experts, the first being Tom Appel of Berkeley’s AC Lock Service. Appel grew up in New York City and recalls his father chastising him whenever he tried to lock the doors; Dad preferred to leave them unlocked and the glove compartment open.

“He thought that if you leave anything in your car they are going to steal it, and if you lock the car they’re going to break a window,” he says. “If you lock your glove box they’re going to break your dashboard. So his theory was that it would cost you less money.”

However, even if you remove everything of value, it doesn’t mean a determined thief won’t remove even more stuff. Talented criminals can extract the air bags, for example, which on the black market fetch up up to $200 apiece. Then there are the interior appointments. Car radios, once oft-targeted by break-in artists, are now mostly ignored: They’ve been broken into many components and can be deactivated if stolen. But Appel says Honda put some excellent-quality seats in certain models, and also made them easy to remove, a perfect recipe for a bulky burglary. “Pretty much any car on the road today is worth more in pieces than it is as a whole car,” he says.

Historically, the main argument for locking your car is to keep the car itself from getting stolen. Appel has seen many stolen autos with the “tips of broken scissors” and “all sorts of stuff” jammed into the ignition to start the engine. But as cars have become more complex, that kind of low-tech thievery is becoming less and less likely. Most reasonably new and/or expensive cars use keys with transponders in them, and pulling a Gone In 60 Seconds-style quickie hot-wire job is harder now than it was in 1974.

“You have a coil going around the ignition hole which when you put the transponder key into the lock, the mechanical part of it allows the key to turn but it won’t turn unless the transponder is read and matches the code in the onboard computer,” says Randy Reed of Reed Brothers Security in Oakland. “Then it releases it.”

Reed says he can get into any locked modern vehicle, barring high-security Mercedes and BMWs, in about 5 to 10 minutes. But actually driving it away requires both technical know-how and jumping through a ton of hoops. “We have computers that can make the key for some of them in 30 minutes to an hour. But you’d have to be really good at it,” he says. “And it helps to have access to the codes from the VIN numbers through the dealership to do that.”

There is video footage suggesting certain whiz-kid thieves are getting into newer model cars with gadgets that defeat their electronic perimeter security. “There have been a lot of articles written about the fact if you have keyless entry—a transponder or what they call RFID-type sensor where you walk up to the car and it unlocks—you should keep those in the refrigerator at night,” says Reed. “If you keep it on your bedroom dresser and you’re close to your car but not in range, and they walk down the street with a repeater where they can read the code off of your RFID, it can open your car.”

Appel thinks a lot of these stories are bunk, however. “There are a lot of urban myths about how people are getting into some of these vehicles,” he says. “I refuse to buy into most of it, because I just don’t believe you've got a lot of criminals running around with high-tech electronics that are primarily only available to the U.S. government, and are expensive.”

The fact is vehicle break-ins remain a mostly primitive endeavor: Somebody walking down the street or through a parking lot lifting door handles, and ransacking the cars that aren’t locked. Some don’t even waste the moments it takes to check a door, says James at Glass on the Move, an Oakland auto glass business.

“One of the methods they do is go through a neighborhood and go bap-bap-bap-bap, knocking out a bunch of windows. They don’t look at whether a car is unlocked or locked,” says James, who wishes to remain first-name only. “And then they come back—if there are no alarms or there’s nothing scary, no police are showing up and nobody’s coming out with a gun to shoot them—and they go and rifle through each car.”

“I’ve had so many customers come in here and say, ‘They broke into my car and they didn’t steal anything,’” he says. “Well, sure they didn’t. They just went and knocked out a bunch of windows, got what they wanted, and moved on. They never came back to your specific car.”

In his day, James has replaced a Burj Khalifa’s worth of auto glass. Business is booming right now in the East Bay, he says, with an average of 30 broken-into cars arriving from two counties daily. “We are absolutely inundated. It’s crazy,” he says. All this carnage has made him a firm believer in a deterrent that probably sells for $5 in some electronics catalog. “The biggest way to keep people out is to have a red, blinky light in your car somewhere,” he says. “Even if there’s no alarm attached to it, if they think there’s an alarm they’re going to stay away, because it means they’re not going to hit the other five cars in the block they’re looking at.”

So when it comes down to it, should you leave your vehicle unlocked, and perhaps festooned with as many as six signs blaring, “NOTHING TO STEAL IN CAR”?

According to science, the answer is a firm no. Rick Brown, deputy director at the Australian Institute of Criminology, has written a couple scholarly papers about whether locking cars is effective. In one, he found 15 out of 16 studies performed across the world (including the U.S.) concluded that locking does indeed reduce vehicle theft. Research in the U.K. has shown that a car with power door locks is two times less likely to be broken into, he says. Meanwhile, a car with an alarm, power locks, and now-standard electronic immobilization is six times less likely to be burgled and 15 times less likely to be stolen.

“Locking a car remains an effective means of preventing both theft from and theft of cars. As a form of perimeter security it increases both the effort and risk associated with vehicle crime,” Brown tells CityLab via email. “Leaving a car door unlocked may stop a side window from being broken, but this is more likely to occur if valuables are left on display in the car. A better solution is to ensure that all valuables are removed from a car when it is parked.”

Appel also comes down on the side of locking it up. “I’m of the camp that still believes my car is my personal space, and I don’t want people rummaging through it,” he says. “And if I leave it unlocked, a homeless person walking by who might spend the night in it. I just don’t want to invite that.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.