Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg compared the teenage brain to a vehicle with a good accelerator but a weak brake — a combination that’s bound to lead to a crash. Steinberg meant the comparison figuratively, but the rampant problem of juvenile vehicle theft makes the metaphor seem like a prediction. Across the U.S., teens are doing the work of seasoned criminals, breaking into dealerships and stealing vehicles. The consequences are dire, even fatal.
Where are the thefts happening?
Teen auto theft isn’t a problem that’s limited to a single region. Consider these incidents affecting dealerships across the country:
- Georgia — A 16-year-old was arrested for allegedly being involved in a sophisticated crime spree. Some of the targeted businesses were dealerships, from which suspects stole cash, car keys, and cars.
- Illinois — Working with an adult accomplice, a juvenile broke into two high-end dealerships and attempted to steal a $250,000 Ferrari.
- Kentucky — A juvenile was arrested after participating in an armed robbery involving a getaway vehicle that had been stolen from a dealership.
- Michigan — A 17-year-old was charged with murder after causing a fatal, three-vehicle crash while driving a vehicle stolen from an area dealership.
- Missouri — A 14-year-old was killed and a 16-year-old sustained life-threatening injuries when they crashed vehicles they allegedly stole from a dealership.
- North Carolina — Nineteen minors ranging from 9 to 16 years old stole over $1 million in cars from 12 different dealerships.
- Ohio — Three teens entered a dealership, pretending to be interested in buying a car. After swiping a set of keys from a desk, they drove off in a vehicle.
- South Dakota — A 19-year-old was accused of breaking into several dealerships and stealing nine cars.
- Texas — Four teens obtained the keys to several vehicles and caused nearly $800,000 of damage to more than 20 cars on a dealership lot.
- Virginia — Three teens, only one of them old enough to drive, broke into a dealership, stole all the keys, and drove off in four vehicles.
- Washington — Four hours after being released from jail for stealing a car from a dealership, an 18-year-old returned to the same dealership and attempted to steal another car.
It’s clear that juvenile vehicle theft, specifically those targeting dealerships, is an ongoing, widespread problem.
What are the consequences?
Some communities have begged for harsher penalties for juveniles who steal cars. In Pinellas, Florida, a 2017 report stated that a teen crashed a stolen car every four days. Two years later, the county was still averaging four arrests a week due to juvenile vehicle theft, leading a think tank to advocate for change.
Connecticut is facing a similar struggle. Juvenile arrests rose 23% between 2019 and 2020. The thefts are such an issue that the state is considering legislation that would change how teen car theft arrests are handled.
However, not everyone agrees with harsher penalties for teens who have committed crimes. Some child advocates argue that since a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed, their age should be factored into sentencing decisions. Until a person’s brain is fully developed, they have inadequate self-control and reasoning ability. They’re more likely to take risks and are susceptible to peer pressure.
If teen thieves target your dealership and go on to commit a crime in your vehicles, will the court hold the teen or your business responsible? Don’t wait to find out.
How should you protect your dealership?
In its annual report on vehicle theft, the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) warns against complacency. You might have cars with the latest security technology or a security system installed at your dealership, but these precautions are all but useless when you make simple mistakes like leaving keys in unlocked vehicles.
You can’t afford not to implement proper physical security measures, which include securing keys.
Taking these steps to protect your business and community is worth it. It certainly was for a Florida dealership that was sued after someone was struck and injured by a vehicle stolen from the dealership. Fortunately, the dealership stored its keys in a locked office within a locked building, among other security measures. It had a key control policy, and there was no evidence anyone violated the policy the night of the theft. As a result, the court cleared the dealership of liability since the theft wasn’t foreseeable.
If the trend of juvenile thefts continues, we could see more dealerships being held liable for a stolen vehicle involved in a fatal crash or used to commit crimes. Don’t let poor security put the brakes on your business.