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Thefts of vehicles

Vehicle thefts recorded by police

Motor vehicle theft is defined as

the taking of another person’s motor vehicle illegally and without permission, with the intent of temporarily or permanently depriving the owner/possessor of the use of the motor vehicle

including illegal use of a motor vehicle (ABS 2011a: 53). The ABS (2011a) definition excludes the taking of property from a motor vehicle and the taking of motor vehicle parts, whether or not the thefts involve the taking of the vehicle.

A motor vehicle is defined as ‘any self-propelled vehicle that runs on the land surface and is eligible for registration for use on public roads’ (ABS 2011a: 53). Motor vehicles may include, but are not limited to, cars, motorcycles, campervans, trucks, buses and plant/equipment vehicles. Thefts from a motor vehicle are excluded from this section; these are addressed in the following section.

In 2011, there were 55,382 motor vehicle thefts recorded by police (ABS 2012b). This was a substantial reduction from recorded motor vehicle thefts in 2001, when approximately 140,000 vehicles were reported stolen (Mayhew 2003b) and in 2005 where 84,900 motor vehicles were reported to police as stolen (Rollings 2008).

Theft of vehicles reported in the Crime Victimisation Survey

The CVS for 2011–12 (ABS 2013a) provided data on the number of incidents of vehicle thefts experienced by households. While it is possible there were some vehicles stolen where the owner was under the age of 16 (and thus excluded from participating in the CVS), it is assumed this number will be small, so no adjustment has been made. There were an estimated 65,600 incidents of motor vehicle theft reported in the CVS, with respondents indicating that 91 percent of the most recent vehicle thefts were reported to police (ABS 2013a).

Estimating the number of vehicle thefts

The difference between the number of reported thefts of vehicles in the CVS (65,600; ABS 2013a) and the number recorded by police (55,382; ABS 2012b) was relatively small. Respondents to the CVS indicated that 91 percent of victims of vehicle theft had reported the latest incident (if they were the victim of multiple vehicle thefts in the previous 12 months) to police (ABS 2013a). Rollings (2008) assumed that almost all vehicle thefts were reported and applied a multiplier of 1 to the 85,200 vehicles reported in the CSS as stolen in 2005. Mayhew (2003b) adopted a different approach to estimate the number of vehicle thefts, taking the ABS recorded crime statistic of 140,000 thefts reported to police in 2001 and applying a multiplier of 1.05 to allow for the five percent of vehicle thefts not reported to police, which resulted in an estimated total of 147,000 vehicle thefts for 2001.

For the purposes of this report, the CVS figure of 65,600 incidents of vehicle theft for 2011 (survey period 2011–12) has been used (ABS 2013a), which represents a multiplier of 1.2 times the number of victims recorded by police. No account has been taken of undetected incidents as it is assumed that all vehicle thefts would be known to victims.

Estimating property loss

The Comprehensive Auto-theft Research System (CARS) is a statistical and research service designed to inform effective vehicle theft reduction strategies in Australia. CARS is funded by the NMVTRC and forms part of the Strategic Policy and Organisational Performance Division of the South Australian Attorney General’s Department. CARS integrates millions of records from more than 40 sources across Australia. This includes police incident and recovery details, currently registered vehicle information, policy and claim details from participating insurers, detailed vehicle specifications purchased from Polk Automotive Intelligence, passenger and light commercial vehicle value estimates from Glass’ Guide and ABS demographic and spatial data (NMVTRC 2011).

A number of factors are relevant to the calculation of financial loss suffered through motor vehicle theft. The highest costs occur where a vehicle is stolen and not recovered. The National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council (NMVTRC 2011) found that 25 percent of the 56,779 motor vehicles recorded on CARS in 2011 had not been recovered (NMVTRC 2011). Insurance claims include

the total outgoing cost incurred by the insurer in finalising a claim, minus any revenue received from the salvage of the recovered vehicle and or any of its parts. The costs may include (but are not limited to) the settlement payment to the policyholder, hire car fees, towing fees, external assessor fees, external investigator fees, police report fees, auctioneer fees, crash repairer fees etc. It excludes the costs of any company-employed staff such as the cost of claim staff, in-house assessors or in-house investigators (NMVTRC 2011: 52).

Using insurance claim data, the NMVRTC (2011) estimated a mean cost per incident of vehicle theft in 2008 to be $20,610 for vehicles that were not recovered and $11,500 for vehicles that were recovered (these estimates varied according to various victim characteristics). Overall, the cost to insurers of the 17,265 theft claims supplied to CARS and finalised during 2010–11 was $182,397,584, with an average cost per claim of $10,565 and a median cost of $6,200. Added to this is the sum of $606 for a basic insurance policy excess, based on the average of basic policy excesses for vehicle insurance from four of the 16 insurance agencies that participated in CARS data collection (NMVTRC 2011). Insurance claim costs reflect the total outgoing cost incurred by the insurer in finalising a claim, minus any revenue received from the salvage of the recovered vehicle and or any of its parts (NMVTRC 2011).

By way of comparison, Victoria Police statistics for 2011 (Victoria Police 2011) showed that of the 11,256 motor vehicle thefts recorded by police in Victoria, the total value of the stolen vehicles was $107,373,149 which represented a mean loss per incident of $9,549 and a median loss per incident of $4,000—somewhat lower than the CARS data.

In calculating the cost of motor vehicle theft, it is also important to include the cost of vehicles stolen where their owners either have no insurance or choose not to make an insurance claim. Some victims may not make an insurance claim; for instance, if their vehicle is recovered quickly with little or no damage or the property loss value is less than the insurance policy basic excess costs.

Research conducted in 2005 by MM Starrs (2005) based on data from the CARS database found that victims had no insurance in 20 percent of motor vehicle thefts; in a further 35 percent the victim had insurance but made no claim and in the remaining 45 percent an insurance claim was made. The report estimated that in 2004–05, the average value of an insured vehicle where no insurance claim was made was $1,010 and the value of an uninsured vehicle was $2,020 (MM Starrs 2005), which in 2011 prices would be $1,208 and $2,417 respectively.

Accordingly, using the total estimated number of vehicle thefts of 65,600 for 2011 and the percentages of thefts in which insurance was claimed, not claimed, or the loss not covered and applying the mean losses to each category of $6,806 (claimed), $1,208 (not claimed) and $2,417 (not covered), the total loss is $261m in 2011 or a per incident average of $3,969 (see Table 17).

Table 17 Property loss and damage costs for vehicle theft
Category Incidents (n) Estimated loss per incident ($) Total loss ($m)
Insured—claim made (45%) 29,520 6,806 201
Insured—no claim made (35%) 22,960 1,208 28
Uninsured (20%) 13,120 2,417 32
Average per incident cost - 3,969 -
Total 65,600 - 261

Note: Totals may not add to sub-components due to rounding

Medical costs

Although it is possible that a stolen vehicle may be involved in a road accident or a vehicle owner might have sustained injuries as a result of the theft, there is insufficient information available to estimate the cost of medical treatment arising from motor vehicle theft.

Lost output

The cost of lost output differs according to whether the theft occurred in a private or commercial context, Figures obtained by Rollings (2008) from the NSW Police indicated in 2005 that commercial victims of vehicle theft made up eight percent of all vehicle thefts.

In the case of non-commercial thefts, the UK estimate for lost output was £47 in 2003 (Dubourg, Hamed & Thorns 2005). Inflating this to 2011 prices and converting to Australian dollars using the OECDs pricing and purchasing power parities rate of A$2.20 to £1.00, gives a mean loss of output of $134, Applying this to the 92 percent of non-commercial thefts results in a total lost output of $8.1m.

In the case of commercial thefts, it is possible to calculate lost output using the results of the UK Commercial Victimisation Survey 2002 (the categorisations used in the more recent UK Commercial Victimisation Survey 2012 (Home Office 2013) were not comparable with the 2002 survey and therefore unable to be used for present purposes). The 2002 survey found that the average number of working hours spent dealing with a theft of a vehicle to be 20 hours in respect of retail thefts and 16.5 for manufacturing thefts (Shury et al. 2005b). Taking an approximate number of hours spent as being 18 and applying Australian average hourly rate in 2011 of $25.83 gives an estimated lost output of $465 for a theft of a vehicle in a commercial setting, which totals $2.4m for all such thefts.

The total estimated lost output from both commercial and non-commercial vehicle theft is $10.5m.

Intangible costs

The only estimate available for intangible losses is the UK estimate of $2,283 for ‘physical and emotional impact on direct victims’ arising from each vehicle theft (Dubourg, Hamed & Thorns 2005: 7). In 2011 prices (using the same conversion process detailed above), this equates to almost $139m for intangible costs for motor vehicle theft.

Total costs

The total cost of motor vehicle theft is estimated at $6,413 per incident, or $421m overall (see Table 18). The largest component of costs of motor vehicle theft was property loss and damage (almost 62%). While this is a decrease from Rollings’ (2008) estimate of $600m, it is indicative of the continued decline in reported motor vehicle thefts in Australia (ABS 2012b).

Table 18 Overall unit and total costs of motor vehicle thefts
Category Per incident cost ($) Total cost ($m)
Property loss and damage 3,969 260
Lost output 161 11
Intangible 2,283 150
Total 6,413 421


Last updated
3 November 2017