The year has gotten off to a roaring start — for vehicle thieves.
From New Year’s Day to Monday, 52 vehicles were swiped in Red Deer. Sixteen of them were running or had keys in the ignition.
The latest rash of thefts highlights what has been a persistent problem in Red Deer.
The latest crime statistics available, which cover the first nine months of last year, show 933 vehicles were stolen — a 28 per cent increase over the 730 stolen over the same period in 2018.
For police, vehicle thefts are often a classic “crime of opportunity,” and when it’s cold, more people put convenience ahead of caution.
With temperatures plunging into the low -40s this week, it is tempting to crank up the vehicle and leave it running unlocked, or to keep the engine on while dashing into a convenience store.
To remind drivers of the risks they take when they leave unattended vehicles idling, local RCMP have arranged a public education event on Friday morning where officers will check on idling vehicles.
Police say the initial theft often leads to a string of crimes.
“They’re using (stolen vehicles) to commit other crimes,” said Red Deer RCMP Sgt. Karyn Kay. “They’re not being stolen for people to stay warm. They’re being used for other criminal activities within our city and in central Alberta.”
That, of course, has not been lost on local police. Red Deer RCMP’s crime reduction team has a full-time group dedicated to stolen vehicles.
“We really have stepped up our game here in Red Deer to try to catch these criminals in stolen vehicles,” said Kay. “We’ve been working really hard over the past couple of months.”
Besides keeping a close eye on known vehicle thieves, officers scour online sites and notice boards for information on stolen vehicles that might help their investigations.
It’s not a Red Deer problem, say local police.
“It’s happening all over. I wouldn’t say it’s community-specific,” said Kay.
Statistics back that up. Alberta has the worst rate of auto theft in Canada, accounting for one-third of all vehicles stolen across the country, according to 2017 statistics, says the Alberta Motor Association. The province also accounts for one-fifth of thefts from vehicles.
In 2018, there were 23,507 vehicles stolen in Alberta, trailing only Ontario — with 23,592 thefts from a population more than three times larger, according to Statista.com numbers.
The good news is that, nationally, vehicle theft is on the decline since peaking at about 600 thefts per 100,000 population in 1995, sinking to 200 per 100,000 in 2018, according to Statistics Canada.
Modern computer chip-embedded ignition keys might contribute to the problem. Replacing that second key can cost hundreds of dollars now, leaving many people making do with one and having to leave doors unlocked to warm their cars.
For those with keyless vehicles, it is worth remembering that often once the vehicle has been started and running, any thief who gets inside can drive off, said police.
Many assume that once the vehicle has gotten out of range of the owner’s key fob, it will shut off. But that is not the case.