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3 The car crime career

This chapter looks at three stages in the career of the car thief: first, I he circumstances surrounding initial involvement; secondly, how the career develops; and thirdly, issues concerning giving up car crime.

Initial involvement in car crime With whom did car thieves first become involved?

Nine out of ten of the sample said that they first became involved with peers, usually having one to three companions with them on their first few experiences of car theft. In the Newcastle sample, all subjects began in the company of others. Eight out of ten of the sample said that peer behaviour was a very important factor in their initial involvement: it was felt unlikely that they would have begun on their own—'no I don't think I would have got into car crime unless other kids were involved'. This said, a small minority (n =4) felt it was important that they were on their own when they first tried to steal a car, mostly for reasons of safety and to reduce the risk of being 'grassed on' to the police.

Acquisition of skills

A third of the thieves said they were taught the basic skills of car theft- breaking in and starting the car—by friends of the same age, usually people from the local neighbourhood. A fifth were taught by older 'mates', and a similar number by a mixture of older and same age friends. Regardless of their age, the vast majority of associates were more experienced than members of the sample at their initial involvement: only six claimed that their associates were as inexperienced as they were:

You get into groups of five, seven . . . you al! go out and walk the streets. You've got a bunch of keys, sledgehammer or whatever. There's normally about two who don't know what they're doing. There's always one who knows how to drive, knows how to get into it, knows how to disarm alarms—you just stay around, bide your time and just listen. You go on a few jobs and then you turn around and think 'yeah, I could do that', then I'll get my mate and go off.

Driving skills came about somewhat differently. As with breaking in and starting the car, the more experienced drivers were willing to teach other offenders. Four out of ten were taught by mates, but the same number claimed


lo have taught themselves by trial and error having watched others drive. (Practice was usually off the road.) Fifteen per cent said that they had been taught by a member of their family, usually a parent, before they became involved in crime.

Hight subjects could not drive at all al the time of the interview, and a further two could drive, but so badly that they did not drive on the road. The non- driving cases were spread evenly throughout the 15 to 20 age group—less concentrated amongst the very young respondents than might be expected. As seen in Chapler 2, many subjects felt confident enough to drive on the road as early as age 14.


In line with research done in Belfast (McCullough et al., 1990), early careers often involved a learning period which did not necessarily involve driving itself. Initiates tended to be the 'lookout' while mates did the breaking in and driving. The novice role seemed not to last for long however: the subjects in this study seemed soon to become part of a learn in which roles were swopped quite frequently:

I always used to be his passenger . . . and then one day he said to me you have a drive. Then one day I stole a car and he was the passenger. I'd say it took me about eight months before 1 did it myself.

It felt cushy when we (first) used to go . . . well my mates used to go up . . . they used to drive . . . I used to sit in the back, four in the back two in the front. Then we would take turns . . . It would be someone's turn (to break in) on Monday, someone's on Tuesday.

Motives surrounding initial offending

Interviewees were asked what they thought was the main reason for their first getting involved. Peer influence (31%), boredom (18%) and the search for excitement (18%) were most frequently mentioned as primary reasons (Figure 3.1).

The 'main reason' question, intended to elicit spontaneous answers, was followed by a list of other possible reasons—based on findings from other research with car crime offenders—which subjects were asked to rate on a scale of one to four: unimportant, quite important, important, very important.

Responses to the prompted explanations for becoming involved are shown in Figure 3.2. Seventy-one per cent of the offenders rated potential excitement as important or very important; 66 per cent rated 'being bored' similarly; and 58 per cent 'just drifted in' to car crime. Asked about other people entering car theft, the interviewees also felt that they were typically also those with nothing to do (31%)—or stupid or immature (16%). (The question was asked in the context of whether 'joyriding' was becoming more popular where they lived: somewhat disconcertingly, incidentally, 71 per cent of the sample felt it was.)


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