Last Wednesday I drove to New York City to be with my family for Thanksgiving.
Even though it’s ordinarily one of the worst days for traveling, I was pleasantly surprised to experience traffic that was hardly any worse than usual. Thanksgiving itself went well, and after driving my 96-year-old aunt and 97-year-old mother back to their respective residences, I had the good fortune to find a parking space not far from my brother’s place in the well-lit, pleasant, peaceful, trendy-yet-family-oriented neighborhood where he lives.
Sounds good, right? And it was, it was—except that the next afternoon, when I went to get my car, I found the back driver’s-side window smashed and a gaping hole in the steering wheel, my introduction to the new (to me) and apparently quite popular crime of airbag theft.
Yes folks, airbag theft. It can be done quickly by an expert, in under two minutes (isn’t human ingenuity wonderful?). And although it’s new to me, it’s actually been going on for at least fifteen years (see two articles from the mid-90s, here and here). New York is a leader in this, as in so many hot trends.
The following was written in 1996, but it’s still true. Just adjust the prices upward for 2011 and you’ve got the picture:
The crime [of airbag theft] is lucrative.
Thieves can sell the unexploded, Frisbee-sized devices for between $50 and $200 to unscrupulous body shop operators, who install them in collision-damaged cars, and collect from $400 to $1,200 from insurance companies, according to Insurance Crime Bureau statistics. Add on labor costs and the total payout can climb to $2,000.
“Some people, in theory, might be buying back their own air bags,” said Barbara Rambo, an Insurance Crime Bureau special agent based in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Although it happened to me on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend and no one was going to touch the car until today at the earliest, I felt the need to get it and its gaping wounds off the street. So I drove it to the body shop.
I have a high level of trust in the one I’m using, but before I got there I joked to a friend that the body shop probably runs the airbag theft ring and would be installing my very own (recycled!) airbag for a pretty penny. When I made that quip that I thought I was just being funny, but apparently that’s precisely what happens with some shadier body shops.
Even though in the scheme of things the whole thing is really just a minor inconvenience, and I’ll probably “only” have to pay the deductible, there’s something shocking and wrenching about coming upon one’s violated car (my relatively new car, at that, even though I bought it used).
At first it’s hard to believe one’s eyes. It seems as though the window’s only been left open. But the little bits of glass all around the perimeter of the place where the window used to be, and the shards—with smoothed and rounded edges, due to the special nature of automobile glass—that pepper the entire back seat, floor, and even the front seats of the car, tell the tale almost as clearly as the dangling wires in the hollow of the gouged-out steering wheel.
Did my car alarm go off? Don’t know. It turns out that car alarms are not always set to activate when windows are smashed, as thieves no doubt are aware. But even if it did go off, people tend to ignore the sound, and anyway it doesn’t go on forever.
[NOTE: The title of this post is a reference to this concept.]