Drivers give car thieves unwitting help

Leaving engine on or keys inside is illegal

January 24, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Their cars were taken while warming up on driveways, or idling at the gas station - but police say the victims were also lawbreakers.

Increasingly, investigators say, people are leaving their car engines running or leaving their keys in the ignition, violations of state motor vehicle codes. Although the victims of car theft are rarely charged with such infractions, they could find themselves without insurance coverage for the resulting loss, police say.

In Anne Arundel County, where more than 1,170 vehicles were reported stolen last year, police began this month to keep track of the number of car thefts in which keys were left in the ignition.

In seven of 11 car thefts in the county during the first two weeks of this year, they found, the vehicles reported stolen had been left running or with the keys inside, police said.

"It's escalating with the colder weather," said Sgt. James Standiford, head of the county Police Department's auto theft squad. "They think it will be OK if they leave it for a few minutes. ... They're so easy to take."

A 1997 Ford Ranger truck was stolen in the time it took for the owner to buy a pack of cigarettes at a gas station on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie, Standiford said.

A 1992 Ford Probe left for a few minutes warming up in the driveway of a house on Levy Court in Pasadena was also stolen.

"It's a disturbing trend. These could have been prevented," Standiford said. "We need the public to make sure they always secure their vehicles before they leave them, even if it's just for a minute."

Leaving a car unsecured is a violation of state motor vehicle laws, Standiford said. "We're generally reluctant to charge someone if they've been honest and told us they left the car running while they ran in to get cigarettes," he said. That is the policy of many police departments, which routinely issue warnings to car owners.

Police warn that not all insurance carriers will cover the loss of a vehicle if it is stolen with the engine running or with the keys inside.

"A typical insurance policy covers what is defined as circumstances beyond a person's control, which would include accidents and thefts," said Debbie Rosen McKerrow, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Insurance Administration. "It could be argued that leaving the keys in the car is within a person's control."

Pat Early, a spokesman for the Professional Insurance Agents Association of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, said it is rare - except with commercial policies - for an insurer to deny a claim because a vehicle has been left unattended or unlocked.

In general, about a quarter of the cars stolen in Maryland have keys in the ignition, said W. Ray Presley, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council. "As much as we preach about prevention, this is still a problem. People fail to take some of the most elementary steps, such as taking their keys and locking the door."

In Baltimore County, police "constantly" advise residents not to leave their cars with the keys in the ignition, said department spokesman Bill Toohey, who recently taped a segment on the issue for a local-access cable television station.

Toohey said Baltimore County statistics last year mirror the statewide trend: About 25 percent of the vehicles stolen in the county had keys in the ignition. In 1999, about 1,900 vehicles were reported stolen in the county, he said. Figures from last year are not available,

"Leaving your motor running in the driveway sends a smoke signal to all the auto thieves in your neighborhood," said Toohey.

Drivers in rural areas of Anne Arundel are also learning the lesson of vulnerability. Roger Weigle left the keys in the middle of the front seat of his 1985 Jeep Cherokee on Jan. 4, in front of his house on Club Road in the South County community of Tracy's Landing. A few hours later, the vehicle was gone.

"You used to be able to leave your doors open when you left the house, said Weigle, 26, a boat motor mechanic for Klein Outboard in Shady Side. "Times have changed."

The Jeep, the engine and transmission of which were recently rebuilt, had not been recovered as of yesterday.

In Arnold, Darla Lehnert let her boyfriend borrow her 1989 Dodge Spirit. He left it running while he ran in to pick up cold and flu medicine at a 7-Eleven store on Ritchie Highway. When he came out, the car was gone.

"He was so upset," said Lehnert. "But I couldn't be mad. I probably would've done the same thing. It was only a few blocks from the house, and the engine hadn't even had time to warm up all the way."

Lehnert recovered her car after spotting it near her home and following the driver to a neighborhood off College Parkway. The 24-year-old waitress and college student, who is majoring in elementary education, called police and was told to take her car home.

Valerie Matthews, a 46-year-old nursing home aide, got her 1998 Chevrolet Corsica back about a week after it was stolen - with the keys in the ignition - from a friend's house in Pioneer City. The sedan was recovered in the same neighborhood, dirty but in one piece, she said.

"I only left it for a few minutes," she said. "But I won't do that again."

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