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Are stolen vehicles taking longer to be recovered?

Introduction

Published: June 2020

Australia’s vehicle theft landscape is constantly changing. Traditionally considered a single crime, vehicle theft is now increasingly at the centre of a range of other crimes such as aggravated burglaries or robberies, arson, drug or firearms dealing or terrorism (in the form of vehicle-based attacks or explosions).

Nationally, there appears to have been an increase in the time taken for stolen vehicles to be recovered, indicating that thieves may be holding onto stolen vehicles for an extended time to conduct other such offences.

To investigate further, the NMVTRC’s CARS team has conducted research into the patterns of recovery times of stolen vehicles in Australia for the period 1 July 2000 through to 30 June 2019 (with a recovery status of 31 October 2019).

Methodology

Data on the short term thefts of passenger/light commercial (PLC) vehicles, motorcycles and other vehicles for each jurisdiction from 1 July 2000 to 30 June 2019 were used and the recovery status of these stolen vehicles was as at 31 October 2019.

The NMVTRC categorises vehicle thefts as either short term or profit motivated. Short term thefts refers to vehicles that have been targeted by opportunistic thieves for short-term uses such as joyriding, transport or used to commit another crime but have been recovered intact or subject to malicious damage; and profit motivated refers to vehicles stolen for conversion into cash via various illegal methods.

The analysis involved looking at all vehicle thefts during the period 1 July 2000 to 30 June 2019 and calculating the difference between the earliest time and date that a vehicle was stolen and the time and date that the vehicle was recovered. It should be noted that short term thefts from 2018/19 had only a maximum of 16 months to be recovered compared to significantly longer periods for thefts from previous years. As such, this analysis may slightly underestimate any increase in recovery times amongst more recent thefts.

In this report, three different calculations were used to analyse the data: the proportion of vehicles recovered after one day of being stolen; the cumulative proportion of vehicles recovered after seven days of being stolen; and the median number of days until the stolen vehicle was recovered. The median is defined as the number of days taken to recover a vehicle in 50 per cent of cases. In this case, we opted to use the median instead of the mean (average) to avoid potentially skewing the data by including outliers in time to recovery (i.e. the few cases where there were a significantly high number of days to recovery).

Median numbers were only calculated for passenger/light commercial vehicles and motorcycles stolen as the number of other vehicles stolen was small and including them would be misleading.

Conclusion

As the data shows, there is clear evidence that Australia has had a shift towards longer recovery times for short term thefts. This is evident across all vehicle types to varying degrees, but is more pronounced in passenger/light commercial vehicles (PLCs) stolen (12 percentage point drop in proportion of vehicles recovered within 7 days). Motorcycle recoveries within 7 days dropped 10 percentage points and a smaller drop was seen in other vehicles stolen (4 percentage points).

For PLCs there were similar trends in increases in recovery times recorded across all jurisdictions, except for the NT which recorded improved recovery times. Victoria and South Australia in particular saw obvious increases in the days to recovery, with the trend slightly more pronounced in metropolitan areas. Likewise, the time to recovery for stolen motorcycles increased in Victoria and was more pronounced in metropolitan areas.

There were no significant differences between PLC market segments, with all segments recording 5-10 point reductions in the percentage of short term thefts recovered within 7 days since 2009/10. The recovery times of PLCs appear to be slightly longer for late model vehicles. However, over the past nine years the shift to a longer recovery time has been more pronounced amongst older vehicles.

These same patterns are reflected in the value of the vehicles, i.e. longer recovery times for higher value vehicles, but over the long-term the shift to increased recovery times is more evident amongst lower value vehicles. Again, these shifts across age and vehicle value groups are more pronounced in Victoria. Motorcycles stolen did not show any considerable differences in the time to recovery across vehicle age.

Speculation on the possible reasons for the shifts in the recovery time include:

  • A reduction in the proportion of offenders stealing cars for ‘joyriding’.
  • Increased use of stolen vehicles to commit ancillary crimes. In this way, thieves may hold onto the stolen vehicles for a longer period of time in order to commit other offences.
  • An increase in the use of cloned number plates to avoid detection /elimination of registration labels. This makes it more difficult for police to detect stolen vehicles and gives thieves more time to use the stolen vehicle.
  • Changes in police priorities including a greater focus on drugs, terrorism and domestic violence.
  • Offenders’ perception of police pursuit policies. Offenders may believe that by driving dangerously they can convince police to pull out of a pursuit thus enabling them to keep the stolen vehicle for a longer period of time.
  • An indication that offenders are getting older and hence less likely to be detected by police based purely on their age.
  • A community shift to a "mind your own business" approach to crime. People may be less likely to ‘get involved’ if they see an abandoned vehicle resulting in a delay in it being report to authorities. There is also a possibility that this change in social attitude is more evident in metropolitan areas.

Passenger and light commercial vehicles

While the number and proportion of short term thefts has reduced considerably since 2000/01 (118,636 thefts, 86% recovery rate), they still make up more than three quarters of motor vehicle thefts (39,900 thefts, 72% recovery rate). A break down by vehicle type shows that the recovery rate was slightly higher for passenger and light commercial vehicles (PLCs) at 78%.

  • The proportion of stolen passenger and light commercial vehicles being recovered within a day has changed from 40% in 2000/01, up to 42% in 2009/10 and has since steadily declined to 31% in 2018/19 (Figure 1).
  • If we compare the proportion of vehicles recovered by the end of the 7 days, it shows that in 2000/01 there were 80% recovered, however, this dropped to 76% by 2009/10 and to 68% by 2018/19 (Figures 1 and 2).
  • A breakdown by jurisdictions revealed that similar patterns, to varying degrees, were seen in all jurisdictions except for Northern Territory. The jurisdictions with the largest declines in time to recovery were Victoria and South Australia (Figure 2).
  • Northern Territory had an increase in the proportion recovered in less than 1 day from 41% in 2000/01 to 54% in 2018/19 (Figure 3).
  • Similarly, the percentage of vehicles recovered by the end of the 7 days was 76% in 2000/01 compared to 85% in 2018/19 which is in contrast to other jurisdictions (Figure 3).
Figure 1: Australia – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery of stolen PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 2: Australia – Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days by jurisdiction, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 3: Northern Territory – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery of stolen PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
  • A look at the median number of days from theft to recovery showed that nationally there has been a gradual increase from vehicles being recovered between 1 to 2 days in 2000/01, reaching 3 to 4 days in 2015/16 and 2 to 3 days in 2018/19 (Table 1). On the other hand, NT has had a drop in the median number of days from 1 to 2 days in 2000/01 to less than 1 day in 2018/19.

Table 1. AUS – Median number of days stolen PLCs were recovered for selected financial years*
ACT NSW NT QLD SA TAS VIC WA AUS
2000/01 1 1 1 1 1 <1 2 1 1
2003/04 2 1 <1 1 1 <1 2 1 1
2006/07 2 1 1 1 <1 <1 2 1 2
2009/10 1 2 1 1 <1 <1 1 1 1
2012/13 2 2 1 1 1 <1 3 1 2
2015/16 4 3 1 2 2 <1 4 2 3
2018/19 3 3 <1 2 3 1 4 1 2
Note: the numbers represent the minimum median number i.e. 1 refers to 1 up to 2 days.

Some of the larger differences found among the jurisdictations include the following:


  • In New South Wales, 40% of stolen PLCs were recovered in less than 1 day in 2000/01 compared to 29% in 2018/19 (at 7 days this was 78% in 2000/01 vs 66% in 2018/19)(Figure 4).
  • This in turn means that a large proportion of vehicles now take longer to be recovered. Indeed, 11% of vehicles were recovered between 8 and 90 days after being stolen in 2000/01 compared to 18% in 2018/19 (Figure 4).
  • New South Wales also had a consistent increase in the median number of days from theft to recovery from 1 to 2 days in 2000/01 to 3 to 4 days in 2018/19 (Table 1).
Figure 4: NSW – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery of stolen PLCs, 2000/01, 2009/10 and 2018/19
  • In Victoria, stolen PLCs appear to take even longer to be recovered. In 2000/01, 38% were recovered within 24 hours compared to only 1 in 5 vehicles stolen (23%) in 2018/19 (Figure 5).
  • Similarly, in 2000/01, 10% were recovered between 8 to 90 days after being stolen compared to 23% in 2018/19 (Figure 5).
  • Table 1 shows that Victoria has always had the highest median number of days to recovery (from 1 to 2 days in 2009/10 to 4 to 5 days in 2018/19) and Northern Territory currently has the lowest median number of days to recovery.
Figure 5: VIC – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery of stolen PLCs, 2000/01, 2009/10 and 2018/19
  • South Australia experienced the largest drop in PLCs recovered in less than 1 day between the period 2009/10 (53%) to 2018/19 (31%) despite a slight increase from 49% in 2000/01 to 2009/10 (Figure 6).
  • Similarly, at 7 days, the percentage recovered dropped from 87% in 2000/01 to 67% in 2018/19 (Figure 6).
Figure 6: SA – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery of stolen PLCs, 2000/01, 2009/10 and 2018/19

The remaining jurisdictions did not show any significant differences however their patterns of time to recovery can be found in the Appendix – PLC tab.

Further analyses were conducted to determine whether there are any associations between the time taken to be recovered and geographic areas the vehicles were stolen from and characteristics of the stolen vehicle such as vehicle market segment, vehicle age and value.


  • As can be seen in Figure 7, non-metropolitan areas have a higher percentage of vehicles recovered within 7 days compared to metropolitan areas. Both metro and non-metro areas experienced reductions in these percentages over time but the reductions where slightly larger amongst metro regions (a reduction of 10 percentage points for metro since 2009/10 compared to 6 percentage points for non-metro regions).
  • A closer look at this breakdown for selected larger jurisdictions showed that Victoria had a larger decline in the percentage recovered within 7 days for both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, compared to the national figures. Again, the pattern was similar in that metropolitan areas had a smaller proportion being recovered within 7 days in 2018/19 compared to 2009/10 (Figure 8). Metropolitan areas had a slightly larger reduction over time than non-metro areas (15 percentage point vs 12 percentage points).
  • South Australia had the greatest decline in the percentage recovered within 7 days for metropolitan areas from 2009/10 to 2018/19, a drop of 19 percentage points (Figure 9).
Figure 7: Australia – Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days in metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas, 2009/10 and 2018/19
Figure 8: Victoria – Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days in metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas, 2009/10 and 2018/19
Figure 9: South Australia – Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days in metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas, 2009/10 and 2018/19
  • A look at the median number of days it took for stolen PLCs to be recovered, also confirms that there has definitely been a larger increase in the median number of days to recovery of PLCs in metropolitan areas compared with non-metropolitan areas. The analysis focussed on the larger jurisdictions as they have more vehicle thefts (Table 2).

Table 2. Median number of days stolen PLCs were recovered for selected jurisdictions, metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas, 2009/10 and 2018/19
NSW VIC QLD WA SA
Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro
2009/10 3 1 2 <1 1 <1 1 <1 <1 <1
2018/19 6 1 5 2 3 1 2 <1 3 1
Note: the numbers represent the minimum median number i.e. 1 refers to 1 up to 2 days.
  • A breakdown by vehicle market segment revealed that there were no clear patterns across jurisdictions with regards to certain market segments taking longer to be recovered. The reductions ranged between 5% and 10% across all the segments (Figure 10).
  • Table 3 shows the median number of days it took for the stolen PLCs to be recovered by market segment between 2009/10 and 2018/19 for selected jurisdictions. The data found the following:
  • In NSW, market segments with increases in recovery times above what was experienced overall included sports vehicles (from 3 to 5 days), People Movers (from 1 to 4 days) and light commercial vans (from 2 to 4 days).
  • In Victoria, there was a large increase in the time to recovery of SUVs (from 2 to 6 days), followed by medium passengers and people movers.
  • Queensland only saw an increase in the time to recovery larger than the overall increase among small passenger vehicles (from 2 to 3 days) while in South Australia, this increase was seen in medium passenger vehicles (from less than 1 day to 4 days).
  • In Western Australia, despite the fact that there was not an overall change in the recovery time over the decade, there were quite a few vehicle segments that experienced increases in recovery times.

Figure 10: Australia – Per cent of stolen PLCs were recovered within 7 days by market segment, 2009/10 and 2018/19
Table 3. Median number of days stolen PLCs were recovered for selected jurisdictions, by market segment, 2009/10 and 2018/19
NSW VIC QLD WA SA
2009/10 2018/19 2009/10 2018/19 2009/10 2018/19 2009/10 2018/19 2009/10 2018/19
Small Passenger 2 3 2 4 1 3 1 2 1 3
Medium Passenger 2 3 2 5 1 2 1 2 <1 4
Large Passenger 1 2 1 3 1 2 <1 2 <1 2
Sports* 3 5 3 5 2 2 1 2 <1 3
SUV 2 3 2 6 1 2 1 1 1 2
People Mover* 1 4 1 4 1 1 3 <1 <1 1
Light Commercial Utility 2 2 1 3 1 2 <1 2 <1 1
Light commercial van* 2 4 2 3 1 2 <1 2 <1 2
Total 2 3 2 4 1 2 1 1 <1 3
Note: the numbers represent the minimum median number i.e. 1 refers to 1 up to 2 days.
* these segments have a small number of thefts and therefore these differences should be considered with caution.
  • A breakdown by vehicle age revealed that nationally, a small proportion of late model vehicles are recovered within 7 days compared to older vehicles. In other words, late model vehicles are taking longer to be recovered i.e. 0 – 4 year old vehicles had a 62% recovery rate at 7 days versus 71% for vehicles aged 20+ years (Figure 11).
  • The increase in recovery time between 2009/10 and 2018/19 appears to be more substantial for older vehicles, i.e. the percentage of 25+ year old vehicles recovered within 7 days reduced by 9 percentage points during this time frame, compared to only 4 percentage points for vehicles aged 0-9 years old.
  • At the jurisdiction level, there were no obvious differences except that this long-term trend of late model vehicles taking longer to be recovered was more evident in selected jurisdictions, particularly Victoria (Figure 12).
Figure 11: Australia – Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days by vehicle age, 2009/10 and 2018/19
Figure 12: Victoria - Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days by vehicle age, 2009/10 and 2018/19

A breakdown by vehicle value revealed two factors:

  • Nationally, the higher the value of the vehicles, the longer it took to be recovered and this was particularly so in Victoria (Figures 13 and 14).
  • Over time, the increase in recovery times has become more pronounced in lower value vehicles (nationally and particularly in SA).

Figure 13: Australia - Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days by estimated vehicle value, 2009/10 and 2018/19
Figure 14: Victoria - Per cent of stolen PLCs recovered within 7 days by estimated vehicle value, 2009/10 and 2018/19

Motorcycles

  • Between 2000/01 and 2018/19, motorcycle thefts have increased by 90% and during the same period of time recovery rates have increased from 38% to 48%. This recovery rate while increasing is still well below the recovery rate of 72% recorded for passenger and light commercial vehicles in 2018/19.
  • It appears that the pattern regarding time to recovery of stolen motorcycles still remained similar to that of PLCs.
  • Nationally, the proportion of motorcycles being recovered in a day has dropped from 35% in 2000/01 to 25% in 2018/19 (Figure 15).
  • Nationally, the proportion of short term motorcycles thefts recovered within 7 days has dropped from 64% in 2009/10 to 54% in 2018/19. This trend occurred in all jurisdictions except Northern Territory, which remained stable. Among the larger jurisdictions, Victoria had the lowest percentage recovered within 7 days (42% in 2018/19), the largest drop since 2009/10 (16 percentage points ) (Figure 16).

Figure 15: Australia – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery for stolen motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 16: Australia – Per cent of stolen motorcycles recovered within 7 days by jurisdiction, 2000/01 to 2018/19
  • Some states experienced very high median number of days from theft to recovery which may be a reflection of the smaller number of motorcycles stolen compared to passenger/light commercial vehicles stolen. Some jurisdictions that had a particularly high increase in the median number of days to recovery between 2009/10 and 2018/19 were Queensland, Victoria and South Australia (Table 4).

Table 4. Australia – Median number of days stolen motorcycles were recovered for selected financial years
NSW QLD SA VIC WA
2000/01 3 2 3 3 2
2003/04 1 1 3 3 1
2006/07 2 2 3 3 1
2009/10 5 2 2 4 1
2012/13 6 4 3 8 2
2015/16 6 5 10 15 3
2018/19 6 6 8 12 2
Note: the numbers represent the minimum median number i.e. 1 refers to 1 up to 2 days.

For further information regarding the time to recovery patterns of motorcycles in each jurisdiction, please refer to the Appendix – MC tab.

Further analyses were conducted to determine whether there are any associations between the time taken to be recovered and the geographic areas the vehicles were stolen from and the stolen vehicle age.


  • A breakdown by metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas shows that similar to PLCs, motorcycles stolen from non-metropolitan areas had a higher proportion recovered compared to metropolitan areas within 7 days, in both financial years (Figure 17).
  • But the reduction in the cumulative percentage of short term motorcycle thefts recovered within 7 days has been greater in metropolitan regions 10% vs 4% points) (Figure 17).
  • A look at the median number of days stolen motorcycles took to be recovered shows that Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia have experienced considerable increases in the time to recovery of motorcycles stolen in metropolitan areas (Table 5).
Figure 17: Australia – Per cent of stolen motorcycles recovered within 7 days by metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas, 2009/10 to 2018/19
Table 5. AUS – Median number of days stolen motorcycles were recovered for selected jurisdictions, metropolitan vs non-metropolitan areas, 2009/10 and 2018/19
NSW VIC QLD WA SA
Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro Metro Non-metro
2009/10 8 5 6 3 4 2 2 2 3 4
2018/19 8 5 14 7 9 4 5 <1 9 5
Note: the numbers represent the minimum median number i.e. 1 refers to 1 up to 2 days.
  • Unlike PLCs in which younger vehicles are taking longer to be recovered, there were no considerable differences across vehicle age among motorcycles stolen (Figure 18).
Figure 18: Australia – Per cent of stolen motorcycles recovered within 7 days by vehicle age, 2009/10 to 2018/19

Other vehicles

  • Other vehicles stolen for short term use has decreased by 26% from 2009/10 to 2018/19 with a recovery rate of 54% in 2018/19. During that same time period the percentage of other vehicle short term thefts recovered within 7 days has reduced from 77% to 73% indicating a slight increase in recovery times for these types of vehicles(Figure 19).
  • During that same time period the percentage of other vehicle short term thefts recovered within 7 days has reduced from 77% to 73% indicating a slight increase in recovery times for these types of vehicles.
  • When broken down by jurisdictions, the smaller jurisdictions namely Northern Territory and Tasmania had the largest drop in vehicles recovered within 7 days in 2018/19 compared to 2009/10. Otherwise there were no apparent differences between the jurisdictions (Figure 20).
  • No further breakdowns were conducted for other vehicles as the number of thefts were too small.
Figure 19: Australia – Cumulative proportion of time between theft and recovery for other vehicles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 20: Australia – Per cent of other vehicle thefts recovered within 7 days by jurisdiction, 2009/10 to 2018/19

Appendix - Passenger/light commercial

Figure 21: AUS – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 22: NSW – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 23: VIC – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 24: QLD – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 25: SA – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 26: WA – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 27: TAS – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 28: ACT – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 29: NT – Time to recovery for PLCs, 2000/01 to 2018/19

Appendix - Motorcycles

Figure 30: AUS – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 31: NSW – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 32: VIC – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 33: QLD – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 34: WA – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 35: SA – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 36: ACT – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 37: NT – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19
Figure 38: TAS – Time to recovery for motorcycles, 2000/01 to 2018/19

The National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council (NMVTRC) acknowledges all police services, registration authorities, participating insurers, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, Glass’s Information Services and Insurance Australia Group for the supply of the data on which this report is complied. Theft incident data may be subject to later revision by the data providers. This work is copyright. Material may be reproduced for personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation with attribution to the NMVTRC (www.carsafe.com.au). © 2020 NMVTRC. All rights reserved.

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