Monday, February 9, 2015

The Rise of Federal Anti- AutomobileTheft Legislation during the 1960s and the Technology that Followed

National Insurance Crime Bureau File Card Catalog, ca 1950s?

The Rise of Federal Anti-Theft Legislation and the Technology that Followed        
            Auto theft during the 1950s and 1960s, then, posed two very different challenges to both the authorities and car owners.  One issue was how to stop joy riders and delinquents. For the most part, it was thought that a joy rider could be easily thwarted. If a careful owner were to just lock the car and remove its ignition keys, all but the most motivated of this group would be foiled.  Going a bit further, it was also suggested that a car owner secure the most vulnerable design element of a motor car built during that period – the vent window.  By drilling a hole in the window frame and then driving in a sheet metal screw, the catch on the vent was secured. But even if a thief forced open the vent window, an owner could install as a second layer of defense, a hidden kill switch.[1]
             Discouraging professional auto thieves was an entirely different matter. Organized crime rings brought with them a different set of problems.[2] One strategy employed at the time was to set standards, and this was particularly the case with the location and format of the Vehicle Identification number, or VIN. Prior to 1955, a car’s VIN could be found in several different places, including stamped on the motor, a door post, a frame, or on the firewall. It could also be stamped on a plate that was affixed to the vehicle by screws, rivets, or a weld.  Since many vehicles had VINs stamped on the motor, and since many owners changed motors without notifying state authorities, motor numbers were of limited value. That was especially the case between World War II and the mid-1950s, when new and used cars were in short supply. In 1955 a first step was taken solving the VIN number issue.  VIN numbers were placed on the left door hinge area, and subsequently in 1969 they were relocated to the left interior dashboard, where they can be found to this day.  By using special rivets, thievery was to a degree deterred. However, these special OEM rivets were often found on the black market. The move to standardize VINs did nothing, however, in the short run to improve vehicle recovery (See table below), since concurrently a shift towards professional thievery was taking place, ever so gradually.

TABLE II-9: Vehicle Thefts and Recoveries in the United States, 1956-1969[3]
Percent Recovered

            One way in which the federal government intervened during the mid-1960s in an attempt to reduce the amount of joy-riding was by mandating that manufacturers install technological devices that thwarted the amateur thief.  As it turned out, these measures were buried in the wave of federal safety and emissions requirements. What resulted after 1967 were a number of improved designs and new devices that laughably stopped only the most amateurish of joy riders. In the process, the vent window was removed, and column-mounted ignition switches and annoying key buzzers became standard equipment.
            The only significant new security device during the first decade following WWII was Chrysler's "key operated starter switch," which was introduced in 1949.[4]  Manufacturers used data indicating that the high percentage of auto thefts were due to the key being left in the ignition switch as a way of avoiding any serious commitment to making cars theft proof.  From time to time door locks were marginally improved, but little else was done.  The federal government, feeling the pressure from angry consumers,  now wielded more aggressive regulatory power.  Beginning with the 1965 model year, General Motors and Ford implemented several improvements in the theft security system of passenger vehicles. Ford redesigned all its locks on 1965 models. The new style contained tumblers at both the top and bottom of the lock assembly. The lock required a key cut on both edges and prevented the unlocking by the use of a jiggler key. General Motors modified Chevrolet and Buick ignition systems to make it impossible for the key to be removed without locking the ignition.  The new ignition switch had five positions -- accessory, lock, off, on, and start.  The key could only be removed when the ignition was switched to the "lock "position. Furthermore, switch wiring terminals were secured and concealed in a plastic connector. The connector was fixed into position on the back of the switch by three projecting fingers that snapped over the concealed lugs on the ignition housing. This made it more difficult to "hotwire" or "jump" the ignition wires and start the car without the key. General Motors also agreed to attach vehicle identification number plates using rivets instead of spot welding on all GM cars except Cadillacs. A special rivet, appearing as a distinctive rosette or "rosehead" was used, which made it easier to detect fraudulent or changed VIN plates.[5]
            These measures, however, did not satisfy industry critics. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 empowered the Secretary of Transportation to issue safety regulations to be followed by motor vehicle manufacturers. The law was broadly interpreted to include auto theft, since joy riders and transportation users were seen as intimately connected to the problem of auto safety. In a related matter, the Highway Safety Act of 1966 gave the Department of Transportation the authority to issue highway safety standards, and pursuant to this mandate Standard number 19 dealt with motor vehicle titles and thefts. Standard No. 19 required a birth to death uniform title, so that the title remained with car until it is sold or salvaged. Only when a car was sold or salvaged, was the title canceled. The old title returned to the issuing state, and an inspection was to take place with each titling.[6]
              In 1968 Congress finally held manufacturers accountable for auto theft by passing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 114 and 115. Standard 114 called for manufacturers to equip their products with steering column locks and an ignition key, while 115 mandated a single VIN marking to be placed on the vehicle.[7] Although the steering lock was a highly touted innovation that was intended to greatly dissuade car thieves, in reality it did very little to stop them.  The United States followed the experience in West Germany, where steering wheel locks were made compulsory in new cars beginning in 1961, and where statistical data tended to indicate their effectiveness.  However, in the case of the U.S., each manufacturer introduced their own lock design, since Congress did not want to establish a restrictive standard that discouraged technological innovation in the field of theft inhibition (33F.R. 6471, 5-27-68).[8]  Almost immediately after these steering locks were introduced,  car thieves countered by developing low-tech tools such as "slide hammers,"  or dent pullers to remove the lock from the steering assembly.  A screw was welded to the end of the puller; in one rapid motion that lock was extracted.  Alternatively, a screw driver driven into the lock, and turned with using vise-grips, broke the tumblers, rendering the mechanism useless.  Ford locks proved to be most vulnerable; studies that followed reported that a good thief could circumvent a Ford steering lock in 10 seconds, one found in Chrysler products in 30 seconds, and General Motors vehicles in 120 seconds. If a thief took the route of breaking the lock by twisting, the entire operation took about 5 seconds.         
            However, the twisting technique proved only workable on Ford and Chrysler cars; since General Motors and American Motors cars had a side bar to prevent the lock from turning.  Car thieves certainly knew the score related to these steering lock designs, as Ford vehicles with steering locks were twice as likely to be stolen as other brands. Indeed, a subsequent FBI survey reported that approximately 81 percent of the recovered cars with locks removed or forced ignition were Fords, while only about 2 percent were Chrysler and 13 percent were GM cars.  These numbers were so damning that the Ford Motor Company redesigned the ignition steering locks on its 1976 model cars.

[1] Ibid., pp. 110-111.
[2] Robert S. Chilimidos, Auto Theft Investigation (Los Angeles: Legal Book Corp., 1971), pp. 109-116.
[3] Chilimidos, p4. Data compiled from Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports.
[4] Ibid, p. 243.
[5] NATB, 75th Anniversary, p.56.
[6] New York State Senate Committee on Transportation, National Workshop on Auto Theft Prevention, Compendium of Proceedings (Albany, NY: New York State Senate, 1979), p.44.
[7] Ibid, 244
[8] David Barry, etal., Preliminary Study of the effectiveness of Auto Anti-Theft Devices National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice,  Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. U.S. Department of Justice, October 1975 (Washington: GPO, 1975). On how to use a "Slim Jim" to open a door, see the film 2331906 slim-jim-instructions.html. 

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