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Vehicle Fires: Explaining the Rise in Vehicle Arson

NCJ Number
Steve Merrall; Sylvia Chenery
Date Published
February 2005
25 pages
Based on data from 1998-2002, this British study examined the relationship between vehicle theft, vehicle abandonment, and deliberate vehicle fires; and it analyzed offenders' motivation.
The study collected data from seven fire and rescue services, five police forces, and numerous local authorities. Interviews were also conducted with young offenders convicted of vehicle-related crimes. Between 1998 and 2002, arson fires in general increased by over 40 percent, due mostly to a 70-percent increase in the number of vehicle arsons. The study focused on links between vehicle fires, abandoned vehicles, and vehicle theft. Data analysis indicated that approximately 50 percent of vehicle arsons involved vehicles reported stolen. Interviews with offenders confirmed that the primary motivation for burning stolen vehicles was to destroy forensic evidence, particularly DNA. Fires in vehicles not reported stolen were set to dispose of the vehicle. Such vehicles tended to be unlicensed and/or untaxed, suggesting that they were burned to destroy identifying evidence. The increase in such arsons paralleled a combination of falling steel prices and the introduction of more stringent, environmental requirements for dismantling vehicles. Beginning around 1998, vehicle owners have been charged to dispose of old vehicles rather than receive a small sum of money. Changes in market conditions for older vehicles occurred against a background of a historically weak vehicle licensing and registration system in the United Kingdom, making it easier for individuals to dispose of vehicles illegally without being traced. Combined with the increasing cost of vehicle disposal, this has created an incentive to dispose of vehicles illegally. Beginning in 2002, vehicle arsons declined for the first time in 5 years, which can be attributed to numerous policy and legislative changes and a recent rise in scrap-metal prices. Close cooperation between the police and fire services is also needed. 5 tables, 4 figures, and 18 references