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Summary of Findings

The Cost of Car Alarms

Audible Car Alarms Don't Work

Auto Theft - Prevention Devices That Do Work

Car Alarms and the Law

Appendix A: Car Alarm Noise Cost Model

Appendix B: Legal Authority of New York City to Ban Audible Car Alarms

Alarmingly Useless: 
The Case for Banning Car Alarms in New York City

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Auto Theft-Prevention Devices That Do Work


Although car theft has dropped 73% in New York City over the past decade,35 it remains a common and costly property crime. Fortunately, there are a number of affordable and effective automobile theft-prevention options currently on the market. These silent alternatives truly make audible alarms obsolete.

Steering wheel locks (such as The Club) and brake pedal locks are the least expensive solutions, and both work to deter joyriders. Brake locks are particularly difficult to defeat. For those attracted to alarms, personal car alarm pagers buzz a vehicle's owner when a car is disturbed rather than annoying an entire neighborhood. Ten of the fourteen New York City car alarm installers we called sell and install these pagers, for about $400. (By comparison, conventional aftermarket alarms range from $200 to $1,000.) With a silent pager, an owner knows when his car is being threatened, and can take appropriate action. This marks a great improvement over audible alarms, and eliminates the problems of noise pollution and false alarms.

The best theft prevention device on the market is the passive immobilizer, now standard equipment on 98% of General Motors' light duty vehicles and nearly all of the new Fords. These immobilizers use a key that contains a computer chip which communicates with the car's engine. Without the proper key, the only way to steal the car is to tow it away. "Obviously, an immobilizer is more effective than an alarm," says GM spokesman Andrew Schreck. "An audible system is really just a noisemaker, but we can tie an immobilizer directly to the ignition system, to make sure it really is a deterrent. And it doesn't cost us any more than putting in an alarm."

The insurance statistics speak for themselves. When Ford added an immobilizer system to the Ford Mustang, theft rates dropped 77%.36 The next year, Ford put this system on the F-150 truck, and its insurance claims fell from 786 to 198. Average theft losses for the Nissan Maxima, once $14,148, plunged to $5,429 in the year an immobilizer was introduced. On average, immobilizers cut theft losses in half, at no extra cost to the consumer, and make audible alarms completely unnecessary.37

Finally, vehicle tracking systems such as Lojack dramatically cut auto theft rates by using global positioning satellites to keep track of cars. When a theft is reported, police can track and recover the car 95% of the time.38 In comparison, cars without Lojack are recovered 62% of the time.39 Very often, Lojack leads police directly to the thieves. Lojack has helped police to break up at least 53 "chop shops" in Los Angeles alone. Because all car owners benefit from the disruption of car theft rings, the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes that one auto theft is eliminated annually for every three Lojack systems installed in central cities.40 Lojack is relatively expensive at $695, but new competition from GM's OnStar tracking system is lowering the price.

Given the range of effective and affordable options available, there is no longer a need for audible car alarms in New York City.


Type Brands Price Pros Cons
Audible car alarms Viper, Hellfire, Cobra, Hornet $200 to $1,000 including installation Provides car owner with a sense of security.  Remarkably ineffective and destructive.
Brake pedal lock or steering wheel lock UnBRAKEable Auto Lock, The Club $30 to $60 Inexpensive visual deterrent. Works at least as well as audible alarms. Pro thieves can saw through flimsy steering wheels, or, given time, the brake pedal.
Personal alarm pagers Autopage, Crimestopper  $200 to $400 including installation Directly alerts owner without waking up the neighborhood. Some pagers have limited range. Must be within a few blocks of car.
Passive immobilizer SecuriLockTM, SmartKey Standard feature on many new cars. Virtually impossible to steal vehicle w/out a key. Cuts theft rates in half. Only dealer can replace ignition key- it has a computer chip in it.
GPS vehicle tracking Lojack, OnStar $695 Car (and often the thief) are found. Recovery rate of 95%. Expensive, but competition is bringing prices down.

Next: Car Alarms and the Law

35Source: NYPD CompStat Unit

36Ford Motors, "72 Quadrillion Ways to Keep Your Vehicle," press release, March 26, 1997

37Yvonne Chilik Wollenberg, "High-tech devices cut down on car-snatching," Medical Economics, Sept. 18, 2000, Vol. 77, No. 18, pp. 21

38Ian Ayres and Steven D. Levitt, "Measuring Positive Externalities from Unobservable Victim Precaution: An Empirical Analysis of Lojack", National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. w5928, Feb. 1997, pp. 31

39supra n.24

40supra n.38