You Won’t Believe the Number of Cars That Are Stolen Because the Driver Left His Keys in the Ignition

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Aug. 15 2013 1:04 PM

You Won’t Believe the Number of Cars That Are Stolen Because the Driver Left His Keys in the Ignition

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Saab vehicles sit on the lot at Deel Saab in Miami. Good thing the dealership doesn't leave them running!

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At a recent public forum, Bill Foster, the mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., presented a startling statistic: Sixty percent of the city’s car thefts happened because the victims had left their keys inside. The statistic sounded too dumb to be true, so the good people at PolitiFact put it to the test, and, amazingly, found that the problem is worse than Foster made it sound. According to the St. Petersburg police, a staggering 83.4 percent of cars stolen in the city get jacked because the owner left behind his keys—a rate that’s approximately double the national average. “If I were a car thief, I’d move to St. Petersburg,” a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau told PolitiFact.

While all of the car thieves who read Slate head off to check the price of airfare to Florida, let me tell the rest of you that the problem is so bad that the St. Petersburg police actually produced an instructional video starring a dim-witted character named “Willie Everlern” to remind people that it is a really bad idea to keep their cars running while they pop into 7-Eleven for a Slurpee.

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In the black-and-white video—which is set to a jaunty ragtime soundtrack, much like the silent films of the target audience’s youth—Willie leaves his keys in the ignition as he sashays into a gas station. While he’s inside, two nogoodniks loitering on the sidewalk seize the moment and punch their ticket to ride, driving away as Willie emerges with an extra-large drink and several bags of chips. In the final scenes, Willie is berated for his stupidity by an angry policeman, who then reminds us all that leaving your keys in an unattended car is punishable by a $116 fine. Then—twist ending!—the policeman's car gets stolen. I can’t wait for the sequel, which will hopefully involve Willie Everlern’s friends Sim Pelton and Montel Lapse.

A couple of thoughts. First, while I applaud the sentiment behind and execution of this thoroughly entertaining video, I can’t imagine that it will do much to solve the problem. (Something tells me there’s not much demographic crossover between the sorts of people who leave their keys in their cars and the ones who know how to watch videos online.) Second, I cannot prove it, but I suspect that this issue is somehow responsible for the Tampa Bay Rays’ dismal home attendance numbers. If you don’t have a car, how are you going to get to the game?

Finally, while I’ve never been one for victim-shaming, the drivers of St. Petersburg have left me with no other choice. It’s never, ever appropriate to leave your car unlocked, unattended, and running. Every driver should know this. It’s one of the first things you learn in driver’s ed, after “Don’t smoke while you’re pumping gas” and “Don’t go over 30 mph on that one stretch of Green Bay Road, just trust me on this.”

Alas, given Florida’s demographics, it’s probably safe to conclude that many of the victims here are probably very old and likely more forgetful than the average driver. If you see an elderly Floridian who leaves his keys in his car, please consider helping him cross the street rather than stealing his vehicle. And if you’re under the age of 80, please note that car thieves already have it pretty easy. A long, thin strip of metal, some fumbling with wires under the dashboard, and, presto, four seconds later they’re driving away in the ride of their choice. There’s no reason to make their jobs even easier. Lock your cars, people. Don’t be like Willie Everlern.

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

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