Jacking the facts

Carjacking is a 'very rare occurrence', and the police don't even recognise it as a specific crime. So what's with the armed marksmen?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

When you hear the word ‘carjack’, what image comes to mind? The not-so-leafy suburbs of the USA, where the FBI made combating carjacking a ‘nationwide priority’ in the 1990s? Or South Africa, where carjacking is so feared that some drivers install flamethrowers on the sides of their cars to deter would-be jackers?

Think again. Carjacking has hit the UK – and according to one British newspaper, ‘Civilised society is under siege’ (1).

Carjacking was first described by the FBI in the 1990s as ‘the taking of a motor vehicle from the person or presence of another by force, violence or intimidation’. Less dramatic British cops define it as ‘taking and driving away with aggravation’ (or ‘aggravated TDA’). Either way, carjacking is distinct from other types of car theft in that it involves using threats, intimidation or GBH to take a car while the driver is still in it or near it. According to one police spokesman, it’s a ‘particularly callous crime’ that can involve ‘horrendous violence’.

Carjacking hit the headlines in the UK after some gruesome incidents at the start of 2002. In January, 25-year-old estate agent Tim Robinson was stabbed to death and his £20,000 Audi stolen in Battersea, south London (2). In early February, 41-year-old company director Gloria Hamilton was assaulted and left unconscious by two men who stole her £50,000 Mercedes (3).

It didn’t take long for ‘I was carjacked too’ stories to appear: the soap star who was threatened by car thieves, the fashion editor’s nanny who had her car jacked, and ‘The mothers who look over their shoulders’ – a feature in the UK Daily Telegraph about carjack-fearing, middle-class mums who run the gauntlet of sending their kids to a posh prep school ‘on the doorstep of south London’s criminal violence’ (4).

So how widespread is carjacking? According to one newspaper report, ‘There were 1200 carjackings in [London] last year, including the violent theft of high-value cars and cases where teenagers were dragged off their mopeds’ (5). This is hardly an epidemic. The UK government’s Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions reckons there are 2.3million cars in London, which would mean that about 0.05 percent of them get carjacked.

If the 1200 figure is to be believed, there are ‘about three carjackings a day’ in London, but according to the London Research Centre, now part of the Transport for London wing of the Greater London Authority, there are approximately 300,000 overall car movements a day in Greater London – adding up to a one in 100,000 chance of being carjacked while driving in London.

Yet even these 1200 London carjackings a year are disputed – by the police themselves. When I tried to confirm the figure with the Metropolitan Police, a spokesman told me: ‘There were not 1200 carjackings in London, no way. There were 1200, shall we say, car crime incidents – and a very small proportion, and I don’t know what proportion because it is difficult to record all the details and package them nicely for the media, but a very small proportion were carjackings.’

Approximately how many were carjackings, or incidents that involved threats, aggravation or violence? ‘It is hard to put a number on it’, says the spokesman. ‘But carjacking is at the small end of the scale, it is not prolific. Sure, there are some bad incidents, but on the whole I would stress that it is a very rare occurrence.’ How rare? One report claims that just 40 of the 1200 carjackings in London last year were considered ‘violent’ – is that about right? Apparently, that figure is ‘more accurate’.

This would make the risk of violent carjacking so rare it’s almost negligible. If there are about 40 actual carjackings involving violence in London a year, and 2.3million cars, this makes a 0.002 percent chance of a car getting carjacked. You’re more likely to be murdered in London (which, at about 150 murders a year, is also very rare) than violently carjacked.

The vast majority of so-called carjackings are where cars are stolen while the driver is paying for petrol or popping into a shop or dropping a child off at school – unfortunate incidents when a car is nicked from under the driver’s nose because he has left the keys in the ignition. Very few jackings involve forcibly removing the driver from his seat, much less assaulting him – yet these are the stories making the headlines, complete with ‘street crime on the rise’, ‘1200 carjackings’ and ‘London is more dangerous than New York’ claims.

But that hasn’t stopped the scaremongers. Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs Simon Hughes says, ‘Carjacking has to be nipped in the bud.… Drivers should know they must take precautions but also that the police will turn up in force if they are needed’ (6). One journalist remembers that when King George VI died in 1952 ‘people stopped their cars to get out and stand to attention in the road’ – but ‘if they did that now, they might run the risk of carjacking’ (7). ‘This is terrifying’, said one of the Daily Telegraph’s ‘mothers who look over their shoulders’, ‘because next it could be me or anyone’ (8).

Meanwhile, drivers are encouraged to be increasingly suspicious of one another. According to Edmund King of the car breakdown service the RAC, ‘If somebody bumps into your car and you are suspicious, don’t stop. Drive to a police station, or dial 999’ (9). Forget sorting out bumps and scrapes with fellow drivers like sensible adults – far better to run to the police in case you’re being targeted by carjackers. The RAC advises motorists to ‘always lock your car doors in urban areas’, painting a picture of the inner city as a jungle of carjackers ready to pounce (10) – while TV presenter and Sun columnist Lorraine Kelly warns drivers to be ‘on our guard at all times’…before admitting that ‘this is no way to live’ (11).

Fear of carjacking might be widespread, but the police don’t even recognise it as a specific crime. According to the Met spokesman, ‘We don’t term anything here as carjacking. That’s a term used by the media. Obviously people will have their own buzzwords, but they can’t expect us to create a new category to fit a new word’. So on the basis of an exceptionally rare crime that doesn’t even have its own name, we are encouraged to treat driving as a highly risky operation where we should trust nobody and be on our guard against fellow drivers and potential carjackers at all times. That really is no way to live.

But it doesn’t end there. The police spokesman I talked to might be unhappy with the media’s overblown reporting of carjacking – so maybe he can explain why the Metropolitan Police have put 11 elite Armed Response Vehicles on high alert across London, complete with marksmen wearing body armour and carrying MP5 rifles and handguns, as a ‘proportionate level’ of force against the threat of carjackers? As of early February, heavily armed police have been on call to sweep on suspected carjackings and to enforce the rule of law in increasingly unruly streets. Surely this is a bit much for what is, after all, ‘a very rare occurrence’?

‘It is not as if we have all these trigger-happy cops on rooftops waiting for carjackings to happen’, says the spokesman. ‘Logically, you could say that police will be briefed about carjacking, and sometimes it follows that some of these briefed officers will drive an Armed Response Vehicle. But it is wrong to say that there are sharp shooters just waiting for things to happen.’

So is carjacking a crime or not? And if not, why the heavily armed response? Does carjacking really even exist? Or is it a figment of our panic-ridden imaginations?

Carjacking has become this month’s urban panic, spiralling out of control and resulting in fearful drivers, suspicion on the roads, heavier policing, and a sense that driving from A to B is a potentially life-threatening exercise. That all this is the result of an almost non-existent crime shows that facts never get in the way of a good scare story. It looks like ‘civilised society is under siege’ – but not from carjackers.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Don’t Panic Button

(1) Streets under siege, Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2002

(2) Armed police take on carjack violence, Nick Panton Walsh, Observer, 10 February 2002

(3) Car thieves leave woman unconscious, Paul Kelso, Guardian, 4 February 2002

(4) The mothers who look over their shoulders, Thomas Harding, Telegraph, 6 February 2002

(5) Armed police take on carjack violence, Nick Panton Walsh, Observer, 10 February 2002

(6) Armed police take on carjack violence, Nick Panton Walsh, Observer, 10 February 2002

(7) Royal trip breaks anniversary tradition, Stephen Bates, Guardian, 7 February 2002

(8) The mothers who look over their shoulders, Telegraph, 6 February 2002

(9) Dial 999 if you suspect ‘accident’ is robbery, drivers told, Jeevan Vasagar, Guardian, 5 February 2002

(10) Dial 999 if you suspect ‘accident’ is robbery, drivers told, Jeevan Vasagar, Guardian, 5 February 2002

(11) ‘Lorraine Kelly column’, Sun, 16 February 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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