What Car Thieves Think of the Club

In the SuperFreakonomics chapter on global warming, we describe pollution as a negative externality, a cost that is generally borne by someone other than the party producing the waste. In so doing, we discuss the difference between two anti-theft devices for cars, the Club and LoJack. Because LoJack is a hidden device and thieves cannot therefore know which cars have it and which don’t, it cuts down on overall theft. Which means it produces the rare positive externality. The Club, meanwhile, works in the opposite manner:

The Club is big and highly visible (it even comes in neon pink). By using a Club, you are explicitly telling a potential thief that your car will be hard to steal. The implicit signal, meanwhile, is that your neighbor’s car – the one without a Club – is a much better target. So your Club produces a negative externality for your non-Club-using neighbor in the form of a higher risk that his car will be stolen. The Club is a perfect exercise in self-interest.

Having read this passage, a man named Jim Burns wrote in with an interesting background story:

Back in the ’90s, I was working as a design engineer for Chrysler. I had responsibility for key cylinders and door latches. At that time auto theft rates in Europe were increasing and driving the insurers to put pressure on the Euro governments to require increased theft deterrence devices on all new cars. As part of our attempt to figure out where best to invest our design dollars, we hired some professional car thieves to provide a more hands-on perspective than us engineers had (well, maybe not all of us).

At some point, the Club was mentioned. The professional thieves laughed and exchanged knowing glances. What we knew was that the?Club is a hardened steel device that attaches to the steering wheel and the brake pedal to prevent steering and/or braking. What we found out was that a pro thief would carry a short piece of a hacksaw blade to cut through the plastic steering wheel in a couple seconds. They were then able to release The Club and use it to apply a huge amount of torque to the steering wheel and break the lock on the steering column (which most cars were already equipped with). The pro thieves actually sought out cars with The Club on them because they didn’t want to carry a long pry bar that was too hard to conceal.

Ah, the beauty of unintended consequences. And do not pass too quickly over the fact that a car company hires car thieves for consultation. If you are a businessperson, do you regularly engage those who wish to do you harm? If you are an intellectual, do you regularly sit down with those who wish to call you names?

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  1. hmmm... says:

    “If you are a businessperson, do you regularly engage those who wish to do you harm?”

    It is also worth considering that perhaps those who wish you harm will not give you true advice! If I was a car thief hired by a car company I would loudly dismiss any prevention measure that worked and supply a glib story about how bad it is, hoping that it would become an urban legend and do away with the offending device.

    Just saying….

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  2. Quill says:

    Lots of (somewhat) reformed hackers work for security and computer companies. Journalists regularly interview (or field calls) from people who obviously loathe them. And then there are the poor customer service reps, who are hated by everyone.

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  3. Brooke says:

    Rich Wilson #4,

    I don’t see that they’re the same thing at all. Trivializing car theft by saying it “doesn’t harm anyone” is pretty callous. Of course the theft of a large (and often valuable) possession hurts its owner! It’s not the same as being assaulted or murdered, but it still represents the loss of an asset and increased difficulties in going about normal life.

    Sitting down with someone to discuss a difference of opinion is hardly the same thing as hiring a former criminal as a consultant. The act of disagreeing usually doesn’t harm anyone physically or financially. Hiring people who engaged in illegal behavior for the purpose on consulting about that kind of behavior is a bit more of a gray area. While it’s great to get insight into their motives and methods, it’s still rewarding someone for criminal behavior.

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  4. Kent says:

    @Eric (#1):
    No, it still wouldn’t work. A former car thief once told me that all he did was pour a little liquid nitrogen on the lock and shatter it with a hammer.

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    • Cameron says:

      Yeah, but how many car thieves are going to lug around a Dewar container full of liquid nitrogen? At that point, the thief is better off finding a car that hasn’t been Club’ed. But an all-steel steering wheel is stupid- sure, it might prevent a few car thefts per year, but it would also kill hundreds in car accidents.

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  5. Jorge says:

    When hiring professional thieves as consultants it is very important to keep an eye on the numbers and the hiring procedures. You don’t want to hire too many or you could end up like Wall Street…

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  6. bob johnson says:

    Eric, why would insurance companies “silently campaign against better approaches to car theft?”

    They pay out less when fewer cars are stolen.

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  7. Bruce Sanders says:

    In Illinois where I live they have just started to installing a large number of “Photo Enforced” stop lights where a picture is taken of your license plate if you run a red light and you are sent a ticket via mail. I wonder if anyone has studied what happens to driver behavior once these “Photo Enforced” stop lights are installed. Do fewer drivers run red lights that are NOT “Photo Enforced” out of fear that they may get caught by hidden cameras? During the transition time, do rear-end collisions increase because someone ahead of you is stopping for a red light they may not have stopped for before? Over the long run, do these “Photo-Enforced” stop lights improve safety or are they just a source of funds for the state

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    • bob says:

      Studies have shown that rear end collisions increase in intersections with photo enforced ticket systems. People slam on their brakes for fear of a ticket.

      There are also stories of the companies that “manage” the networks (they get a cut of the ticket revenue) changing the timing on the lights, shorter yellow lights.

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  8. Potato says:

    @Sushi, #5:

    Car theft continues, but now with immobilizers thieves look to steal the keys by breaking into people’s homes, snatching purses, or carjacking, rather than hotwiring the car in the driveway or parking lot.

    Also, theft coverage is usually a small part of the insurance premium — liability/medical coverage makes up the bulk of the cost.

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