An old approach to reducing car thefts gained new life Tuesday when the Automobile Association of America announced plans to actively promote a theft prevention program.
Operation Combat Auto Theft, or CAT, has been in effect statewide for about three years, but the program has had little effect because so few motorists participate.
Tuesday, representatives of several law enforcement agencies gathered at the AAA Auto Club South's West Shore office while the motor club announced plans to provide CAT registration at eight Pinellas and Hillsborough offices.
AAA said the program is desperately needed. In 1992, Hillsborough's auto theft rate was the second highest in the state, with 12,165 cars stolen. Only Dade County had more thefts. Pinellas ranked seventh.
Authorities say the CAT program can be extremely successful when it is widely used.
"New York City claims to have a 40 percent reduction," said Cpl. Bob Northrop of the Tampa Police Crime Prevention Unit. "Forty percent is awfully big."
The CAT program works this way: A motorist registers for the program and affixes a bright yellow sticker with a panther design to the back window of his vehicle. The sticker gives police the right to stop that car or truck anytime between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Officers do not need a reason to make the stop, they need only to spot the sticker.
The reasoning behind the program is that thieves often steal cars late at night. So at the very moment a car's owner is engaged in a peaceful slumber at home, thieves could be out joy riding in the family Chevy, committing crimes and causing crashes.
At a minimum, the stickers are usually a deterrent, police say. Most thieves do not want to risk being stopped and will leave these cars alone. But authorities hope the tags also will provide officers with a means to catch thieves without having to wait for them to break a traffic law. Officers will ask for a driver's license and the car's registration to verify that the driver inside is indeed the car's owner.
The program is clearly not for everyone. People who frequently travel during the early hours could soon tire of the attention. And if there is something illegal going on inside the car, such as the driver being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, tickets will be issued and arrests made.
In addition to offering registration at eight AAA offices in Pinellas and Hillsborough, the motor club also will provide auto-theft seminars in both counties.
The Tampa seminar is 6:30 p.m. March 22 at 1515 N West Shore Blvd. The St. Petersburg seminar is 10:30 a.m. March 26 at 800 Second Ave. S. Reservations are required. For information, call the area office.
Theft prevention tips
AAA and police suggest that all drivers follow these guidelines to curb auto thefts:
When parking your car or truck, roll up the windows, lock the doors and take the keys. Make towing difficult by setting the emergency brake and turning the front wheels sharply until the steering column locks.
Park near the entrance of parking lots, especially if the car will be unattended for some time. Put packages and personal items out of sight, and set anti-theft devices.
When driving, use the inside lane when you stop. Carjackers on foot will have less opportunity to get into your car from the passenger side as you stop at lights and other intersections.
If you are bumped by another car on a road or a police officer signals you to pull over, turn your lights on, wave the person or officer to follow and head to the nearest safe place. This reduces your chance of being robbed by "bump and run" thieves or criminals posing as police officers.
Have your vehicle identification number etched on your car's windshield and in other hard-to-find spots. Slip identification cards (such as business cards) under the floor mats and seat and into the car's door panels. If your car is stolen or altered, it will help police identify it as yours.
If you have a garage, use it for the car. Be certain to lock both the vehicle and the garage.