Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft.

AuthorAnderson, Jeff


The purpose of this study was to learn more about the backgrounds, techniques, and motivations of young offenders involved in auto theft.

This study was conducted after a decade in which Winnipeg's auto theft rates had increased by nearly 600%. For several years, Winnipeg had the highest rate of motor vehicle theft in North America at a level about 80% higher than the second highest community (usually Modesto, California).

As the first step in developing an evidence-based prevention initiative, the Manitoba Auto Theft Task Force conducted a detailed analysis of auto theft in Winnipeg. The police and the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation had extensive information about the geographic patterns of auto theft and about the offenders' favourite targets. Most people charged with auto theft were young offenders. The vast majority (95%) of vehicles were recovered, most within 24 hours. This high recovery rate indicated that cars were being stolen for joyriding rather than for profit. (2) Another factor that led to the conclusion that joyriding was the predominant type of motor vehicle theft was that the cars stolen were older vehicles (the favourite targets were 1990-95 Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers), with relatively low monetary value. The analysis also included interviews with some of the youth who were chronic auto theft offenders.

In this article, we present the results of these interviews. While the information obtained in this study was important for the development of a prevention strategy, it also can be used to help explain why auto theft was such a prevalent and persistent offence in Winnipeg. In this article, we will describe the backgrounds of these offenders, look at their motivations for committing auto theft, and propose an explanation for this behaviour.

Boredom, edgework, and auto theft

Several decades ago, Jack Katz (1988) took a phenomenological approach to crime, which he contrasted with prevailing materialist explanations. Katz believed that crime could not be understood in terms of its material rewards or in terms of attaining other kinds of goals, but that participants were "seduced" into crime because it provided experiences that helped them to transcend the realities of their daily lives. For Katz, these experiences were far more important in understanding crime than the structural factors that were emphasized by most theories of crime causation.

Several criminologists, including Turk (1991) and Ferrell (1992), criticized Katz's work on the grounds that his theory did not pay sufficient attention to the role played by structural factors such as race, class, and gender--Turk (1991) refers to "the theoretical problem of relating 'phenomenal foreground' to 'structural background'" (194). Turk was also concerned that Katz considered only the individual and not the individual's interactional context. Despite these issues, many of the critics, particularly those who worked from the perspective of cultural criminology, welcomed Katz's focus on the lived experience of those involved in crime and his emphasis on the intrinsic rewards of crime.

Despite their concern with Katz's rejection of structural explanations, theorists such as Ferrell view his work as a starting point that could enhance structural explanations of crime:

In a criminal event ... structures of social class or ethnicity intertwine with situational decisions, personal style, and symbolic references. Thus, while we cannot make sense of crime without analyzing structures of inequality, we cannot make sense of crime by only analyzing these structures, either. The esthetics of criminal events interlocks with the political economy of criminality. (Ferrell 1992: 118-19).

Lyng (2005) was one of the theorists whose work expanded on Katz's ideas. Lyng developed the notion of edgework, which means voluntarily participating in high-risk leisure activities or occupations. For those who lack the opportunity to engage in legal edgework activities or who want the additional thrill of violating the rules, it can mean involvement in deviant activities such as BASE jumping, experimenting with drugs, graffiti tagging, or auto theft.

People do these things because they are fun and exciting. Going beyond this simple level of explanation, Lyng (2005) feels that some people are attracted to edgework as a means of escaping from "social conditions that produce stunted identities and offer few opportunities for personal transformation and character development" (6). Edgework allows participants to escape the everyday routine and boredom and to take control over at least one part of their lives. As Elay ward and Young (2004) put it, "[I]dentity becomes woven into rule-breaking (267).

In this article, we will examine the degree to which this theoretical perspective is consistent with the patterns of auto theft and the motivations of young auto theft offenders in Winnipeg and several other Canadian cities.


The study involved a sample of 43 incarcerated youth who had histories of motor vehicle theft. (3) Most of the respondents were male (only 2 were female) and their average age was just under 16. Many of the youth had been incarcerated for other, more serious offences, but they also had conviction records for vehicle theft offences. Each of the research subjects agreed to participate in a 45-minute semi-structured interview. Respondents were told they could withdraw from the study at any time and were assured that their responses would be confidential.

Following this study, Project 6116--a group established to promote auto theft prevention--and the AUT021 Network of Centres of Excellence funded similar research in Montreal (Tremblay and Sauvetre 2014), Vancouver 0enion and Brantingham unpublished), Calgary (Drozda 2006; Wilkening 2004), Regina (Pfeifer and Buchanan 2005; Skakun 2005), Windsor (O'Connor and Spencer unpublished), Ottawa (O'Connor and Kelly 2006), and Toronto (Beare and Drury unpublished). We will refer to these studies throughout this article to illustrate some of the similarities and differences between the different cities. Each of the studies was done independently; therefore, the questions asked, the information collected, and the results reported were not uniform across sites.

Respondent characteristics

Family relationships

Nearly half the Winnipeg respondents lived with a single parent when they were not in custody, about one third lived with two parents, and 12% lived in a group home. Even fewer youth lived with both parents in Regina (Pfeifer and Buchanan 2005), Ottawa (O'Connor and Kelly 2006), and Vancouver (Jenion and Brantingham unpublished), where (respectively) 12%, 15%, and 9% lived with both parents.

Eighty-five percent rated their relationship with their parent/guardian as being close or very close. However, the majority (56%) reported that they had run away from home at least once. This does not seem consistent with the reported closeness of their relationship, but it is possible they could have felt close to their parent(s) despite the kinds of conflicts that can lead to running away from home.

When asked about their family's financial status, 74% of the youth reported that their family incomes were comfortable, 13% said their families were well off, and only 13% said they were poor. This does not mean they were from middle-class backgrounds, as most were from the inner city, but it does suggest that they did not feel worse off than others in their communities. Responses in Vancouver and Regina were almost identical, while in Ottawa 41% reported being poor.

When asked if any members of their immediate family had been involved in crime, 41% reported that someone in their family had had major involvement, 41% reported minor involvement, and only 19% reported no involvement by other family members. When the same question was asked concerning involvement by members of their extended family, 55% reported major involvement, 23% minor involvement, and 23% no involvement. In Ottawa, 71% reported coming from families that were involved in crime. (4)

The picture of their families drawn by the youth was that they felt close to their parents (or parent, because most did not live with both parents) but the percentage of those who had run away suggests issues in this relationship. They did not feel that they came from economically poor families, but it was clear that a high proportion of the youth had immediate and extended family members who had been involved in crime.

School relationships

The respondents reported having completed an average of 8.2 years of school. Given their average age of almost 16 years, they were several years behind their normal grade level. This was very similar to the other cities in which this question was asked...

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