Thursday, March 19, 2015
Stealing Cars: Chop Shops and Federal Government Legislation during the 1980s
Chop Shops and the Federal Government Response
By 1982, the federal government stepped up its efforts to reduce auto thefts, particularly from the organized crime sector, by taking direct aim on chop shops. The House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection advanced a bill that mandated the marking of critical car parts, and the Senate concurred with a companion bill. While Congress was behind these measures, manufacturers and the Reagan Administration were not. In fact, during one hearing on the bill, one Administration official spoke in favor of the bill, and another testified against it.
Diane K. Steed, Deputy Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), gave the Administration’s position at the hearing. She said, “The industry is already facing a serious cash-flow problem . . . and $100 million worth of regulatory burdens on the motor vehicle industry is not keeping with the regulatory relief effort.”15
Congress ultimately prevailed, and the 1984 Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act was made into law. The Theft Act was designed to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle thefts and simplify the tracing and recovery of stolen parts from stolen vehicles. The Act directed the secretary of transportation to issue a theft prevention standard requiring manufacturers to inscribe or affix numbers or symbols on major parts of high theft passenger cars for identification purposes. Additionally, this legislation also addressed other issues such as criminal penalties, export or stolen motor vehicles, and comprehensive insurance premiums.
In October 1985, the Department of Transportation implemented the Federal Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Standard (49 CFR Part 541) which required manufacturers of designated vehicles to inscribe or affix the VIN onto the following major parts: engines, transmissions, fenders, doors, bumpers, quarter panels, hoods, and deck lids/tailgates and/or hatchbacks. In the case of engines and transmissions, either the 17-digit VIN or an eight digit VIN derivative had to be engraved or stamped. Manufacturers could meet the affixation requirements with indelibly marked labels that could not be removed without being torn or rendering the number on the label illegible. The labels also had to leave a residue on the part after being removed.
As a further theft deterrent, the 1984 Act allowed for an exemption from the parts-marking requirements for certain brands where anti-theft devices were installed as standard equipment in factory-delivered cars. The Act limited each manufacturer to exemptions on two models per year. The manufacturer had to petition NHTSA for an exemption, which would be granted if the devices were determined to be as effective in reducing and deterring motor vehicle theft as compliance with parts marking. The common features of anti-theft devices installed as standard equipment for which exemptions were granted included “passive” systems, namely, those that engaged automatically without any extra action by motorists. Such systems were activated automatically by removing the key from the ignition and locking the doors. Sensors located in the doors, hood, trunk, and key cylinders activated an alarm after an unauthorized entry attempt. Also, approved systems had a starter or ignition interrupt and power (battery) protection. Most systems that were granted full exemptions featured an audio and/or visual alarm, and some of the General Motors systems used a pass key. Systems that were granted a partial exemption had marked engines and transmissions.
Later, after Congress acquired more information, the Anti Theft Act of 1992 was passed. This legislation built on the 1984 Act in several ways: Federal penalties for auto theft were enhanced; a grant program was authorized to help state and local law enforcement agencies concerned with auto theft; and finally, experts were called on the look into and report on motor vehicle titling, registration, and salvage. In 1994, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System was established and states were required to participate in the system. Consequently, the Theft Prevention Standard was expanded, rules were established to check if salvage or junk vehicles were stolen, and the US attorney general was charged with maintaining a National Stolen Auto Part Information System. Selling or distributing stolen marked parts became a federal crime.