Addressing auto theft is a team sport

A unified approach, that includes governments, is required to curb auto theft epidemic.

Almost every day on the news, in social media or elsewhere you will hear stories of Canada’s “epidemic” auto theft problem.

The question on the minds of many people is “Why has auto theft become such a big issue all of the sudden?” 

This question is often followed by corollary commentary along the following lines: “We can find and recover luggage anywhere in the world with an Apple Air Tag so how is it that we can’t find and recover stolen vehicles before they are exported?”

Another question that gets asked is: “Why are cars so easy to steal these days and isn’t this just a racket the automakers don’t care about because they get to sell another replacement vehicle?”

These questions and observations from consumers, while entirely understandable, represent a bit of shallow understanding of the complex problem of auto theft. Actually, the problem of increased levels of auto theft in Canada is not particularly complex — it comes down to supply and demand and Canada being a low risk, high reward jurisdiction in which organized crime can ply their trade. 

What is complex however, are the solutions to mitigate auto theft. There are a number of players involved, each having a role in addressing auto theft. These include: police authorities, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, auto dealers, consumer organizations, finance and leasing organizations, railways, trucking companies, port authorities, provincial and territorial governments and the federal government … to name a few. 

No single group or organization is going to be able to crack the auto theft nut, regardless of how good they are. Much like the star hockey player still needs a solid supporting cast of teammates to win games, all of the parties noted above need to work collaboratively and cooperatively together if we are going to make any real progress on the issue of auto theft. 

What we have witnessed too often on this file is that when everybody is responsible, no one is responsible. Further, unless everybody accepts responsibility for the role they need to play — we will not be optimally equipped to make any real difference on auto theft.

I am proud to say that the Global Automakers of Canada has been leading the charge in bringing together industry associations, police authorities, municipal leaders, insurance and consumer groups to create a comprehensive picture of the issue and some of the solutions needed to stem the flow of stolen vehicles out of the country.

It is clear from most of the discussions we have had — corroborated by most of the media pieces on this important issue — that one of the significant keys to reducing auto theft is to interdict the vehicles before they actually are put on a boat and leave the country because once they are on a boat they are very difficult and much more costly to recover. 

In this regard, it is well known that the Port of Montreal is the port of exit for stolen vehicles. It is also well known that these vehicles are arriving into the port in sealed containers — more often by rail than by truck and we know that stolen vehicles are often mis-identified on the manifest as some other goods or products. 

We also know that there are several specific countries of destination for these stolen vehicles — many of which were highlighted in a recent CBC exposé on auto theft. 

Knowing all of this information you would think that the Port of Montreal could do something to stop the export of these containers of stolen vehicles. However, in fairness to the Port of Montreal, they have no authority nor ability to open up sealed containers to investigate the contents. Instead they rely on collaboration with local police authorities and the Canada Border Services Agency to intercept and investigate containers that they believe may contain stolen vehicles.

What we have witnessed too often on this file is that when everybody is responsible, no one is responsible.

The challenge here is that local police forces and, frankly, police forces across Ontario and Quebec have better things to do with their scarce time and resources than to investigate stolen vehicles especially when the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) does not have adequate resources to deploy to inspect anywhere near enough of the containers to detect stolen vehicles bound for export to Africa or eastern Europe.

So it would seem that at least part of the solution to this problem is the federal government prioritizing auto theft as an issue of public safety and national concern such that federal Public Safety department — responsible for the CBSA — and the federal Transport department — responsible for the federal Port of Montreal are mandated to be part of the solution to the problem of auto theft with all of the other parties I mentioned earlier. 

Right now, the federal government is missing in action on this file and our CBSA agents are, perhaps rightly so, concerned about what’s coming into Canada as opposed to what is leaving Canada. However, what the federal government fails to realize is that the lucrative business of stolen automobiles is funding the growth of guns and drugs coming back into the country. 

So, if we want to put a dent in auto theft as well as the importation of guns and drugs we need to have the resources devoted to effectively shut down the supply of vehicles heading out of the country. If the vehicles cannot exit the country and get to the organized crime kingpins, then we should see theft levels start to fall.

For our part, can manufacturers make vehicles more difficult to steal? Yes, and they are hardening their anti-theft and vehicle tracking technologies all of the time. But we only ever end up being one step ahead of well-funded criminals who are motivated by the low risk, high payoff opportunity associated with auto theft in Canada.If a thief really wants to steal a vehicle, they will do so regardless of the anti-theft technology on the vehicle. 

Solving auto theft is a team sport and right now we are missing a few federal players from the team — the departments of Transport, Public Safety, and Justice — if we are going to win the battle against auto theft in Canada.

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