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THE GOODS : Your Car Is a Lot Safer in L.A. Than You Think


One night your neighbor's car is stolen from the street. Every news report about a carjacking reinforces your presumption that car theft is out of control in Los Angeles.

But national statistics tell a far different story. Los Angeles has among the lowest auto theft rates of any American urban area.

You have a higher risk of having your late-model car stolen in Chicago, Miami, Houston, Philadelphia and New York. All those Southlanders moving to Denver for the quality of life there--they can deal with a higher theft rate as well.

San Francisco motorists lose their cars twice as often as people in Los Angeles. In Detroit the chances of a theft are three times higher than in Los Angeles. And even Portland and Indianapolis have a higher auto theft rate, despite their safe, small-city images.

The statistics were compiled recently by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry association. The study covers the period from October, 1990, to May, 1994, and ranks theft losses of 1991 to 1993 model-year cars in 30 major cities. Losses in those urban regions account for the vast majority of car thefts in the nation.

The worst city in terms of theft-claim frequency was Detroit, with a rate of 29.6 stolen vehicles for every 1,000 cars insured over a one-year period. The lowest ranking city was Cincinnati with a rate of 5.6.

Los Angeles County's rate was 9.7 and the four-county region outside Los Angeles was a close 8.5. The combined metro rate for Southern California's five counties was 9.1.

It is not clear why Los Angeles has a lower rate than many smaller cities, despite the widespread perception that it is rife with every type of crime, says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the data institute. City theft rates vary widely, often for no apparent reason.

In general, coastal cities and border cities tend to have a higher theft rate, related to the trade in exporting stolen vehicles.

When the theft rates are ranked by the dollar loss rather than frequency of claims, the ranking of cities changes and Los Angeles looks somewhat worse.

On average, Los Angeles has a loss rate of $57 per insured vehicle, compared to the higher rates of $248 in New York, $82 in Miami and $74 in San Francisco. But Los Angeles was higher than Chicago with $28, Denver with $21 and Houston with $55.

Hazelbaker says international events can trigger changes in theft losses. When the Berlin Wall fell, there was an explosive trade in vehicles stolen in the United States to meet demand in former communist countries.

While that problem has slacked off, the economic boom in China has created a huge market for stolen luxury cars.

Because of stolen vehicle exports, recoveries are going down. But overall theft rates are going down as well, thanks to vastly improved vehicle security systems installed by manufacturers.

In 1979, the national theft frequency was 20.4 claims for every 1,000 vehicles, compared to 5.1 claims for the 1993 model year cars. But the average loss has gone from $800 in 1979 to $4,000 in 1993.

The drop in frequency and the rise in loss have almost exactly offset each other and the portion of auto insurance premiums going to theft has remain almost constant.

So, lock your car and relax a little bit.

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