It'll never happen to you?


ISSUES/Security: Car makers are waking up to new concerns about car theft - and carjacking. Central locking and immobilisers are no longer enough toase motorists' worries. Now, new tracking systems are being added to the protective arsenal, writes Ray Okonskyi

Thinking back to the old proverb, 'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link', car makers have taken this to heart and made their very expensive glass and metal boxes more difficult to get into and drive away.

This has caused a sea change in the way cars are stolen, from benign removal to confrontational hijacking, or "carjacking".

Up to 1997, all a security-conscious driver had to do was ensure the windows were closed, doors locked, and any tempting valuables hidden away.

Of course, your car could still be broken into and driven away to destinations unknown, but the duty of care quickly transferred to the manufacturers and, as a result, cars became much more difficult to steal.

Starting with the steering wheel lock, immobilisers quickly arrived, and sales of after-market car alarm systems proved a big hit.

Thereafter, a plethora of improvements to lock designs were introduced. Mechanical systems within doors were modified to prevent, or at least delay, opening the vehicle via the window seals.All these advances meant any committed car thief had to become either an electronics expert to overcome the high-tech security system, or seek a career change, to housebreaking perhaps.

However, there is one other option open to car thieves. Once they have control of the key, all in-built security systems effectively vanish. Top of the range vehicles can offer enhanced security measures, including fingerprint or retina scanning before the immobiliser disengages, but this only works if the engine has not been started.

And so the era of 'carjacking' began, where cars are taken from the driver with the keys already in the ignition. Seemingly innocent situations can have unexpected ramifications for the unwary.

What may at first glance appear to be a helpful motorist trying to attract your attention saying something may be wrong with your car, could be a ruse to relieve you of it.

Similarly, it may be convenient for the central locking system to open all doors when you approach the car, but should your journey continue with all the doors unlocked, it is possible for someone to jump in at a junction or traffic lights and force the driver to leave the car.

Keeping the doors locked reduces the risk. However, for safety reasons locked doors have been considered risky. If emergency services need to rescue the occupants, a centrally locked vehicle can hold them up. Thankfully technology has moved on. Newer safety systems allow for immediate automatic unlocking, should the vehicle be involved in an accident that fires the airbag safety system.

Unless your vehicle has been stolen for so-called "joyriding" or ram-raiding, the thief will probably take great care because any damage will harm the resale value.

That said, the most effective method for having your property returned undamaged is to fit a tracking system. These devices are carefully hidden within the vehicle chassis and use a combination of GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites and a mobile phone to provide the monitoring centre with continually updated reports of car location, direction and speed. Operated by Eircom's PhoneWatch subsidiary, control staff have the ability - on instructions from the gardaí - to remotely reduce the speed of the vehicle or bring it to a complete halt, under supervision of the pursuing Garda car.

In the end, common sense should always prevail. Thieves can strike at any time of the day or night, and it's a mistake to think it will never happen to you. If you are ever waved down by a stranger and feel the situation is getting out of hand, return to your car, lock yourself in and either phone or drive to the nearest Garda station.

Whatever you do don't panic, think clearly and sensibly, and remember, however much you value your car, your life is infinitely more valuable.