Gone in 60 seconds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2002, 12:00am

HONG KONG DRIVERS had better keep an eye on their cars over the next three days, say the British motoring organisation the RAC Foundation and the Hong Hong Police.

'Christmas is a time when we all have too much to do and not enough time,' says the foundation's London-based executive director, Edmund King. 'The pressures of family, work and social commitments make it one of the most stressful times of the year.

'Ordinarily sensible and well-organised people frequently get distracted because they have such a lot on their minds and not taking care of mundane things, like locking the car may be a consequence,' he adds. 'But now that much car theft is actually opportunist driven, motorists should be extra vigilant to protect the vehicles and contents.'

The foundation, which serves six million British motorists, says 341,674 cars were stolen in 2000/01 and car crime was rife at Christmas. Its files reveal cases that could easily apply to Hong Kong's last-minute Yuletide rush this week. Such as:

* The shopper who loaded his car with gifts, activated the alarm and returned to the shops - failing to notice that he had left the car door open;

* The driver who drove off leaving a pile of shopping behind;

* The motorist so engrossed in the Christmas list that she forgot to lock the car;

* The harassed car owner who filled the back seat of the vehicle with Christmas shopping because the boot was already full of rubbish. The rubbish was, of course, untouched when he returned, unlike the shopping;

* The driver who went shopping and left the keys in the ignition;

* The distracted individual who left house keys on the dashboard along with opened, addressed mail;

* The careless car owner who placed a lap-top, phone and briefcase in the boot of his estate car . . . but forgot to close it.

But while millions of Europeans downed tools on Friday for a long family break until January 6, many Hong Kong households have to plan the logistics of Christmas turkeys, shopping and an influx of guests over two or three days in hours.

The Hong Kong Police's Crime Prevention Bureau said the foundation's findings were universal. 'The general scenarios and advice in respect to Christmas shopping providing a distraction, and therefore a security liability, for drivers is equally applicable to the Hong Kong environment,' says the bureau's acting superintendent Bob White.

And car theft's a nice little earner for Hong Kong thieves; the bureau's statistics reveal 2,581 cars were stolen in the SAR in 2001, and 2,239 until November this year. The most common targets in 2002, White says, have been the Honda Civic (with 294 thefts), the Honda Accord (with 82) and the Mitsubishi Gallant (with 67). The owners of Hong Kong's more expensive cars are also vulnerable to theft as they party during the festive season.

'One other issue to consider in respect to key security is the gay abandon with which too many of us entrust the keys of a $500,000 vehicle to a car valet,' White says.

The foundation also highlights thieves stealing cars when they are left unattended by busy drivers for a few minutes - whether from petrol-station forecourts, outside school or shops.

In Britain this is called 'frosting', when drivers defrost their cars by letting their engines run. If the car is unattended, a sharp thief 'can make off with an early Christmas present', the foundation says.

'Hong Kong is somewhat different due to our much milder weather,' says White. 'However, keys left in the ignition while an owner nips into a shop have been taken advantage of, so the [foundation's] advice remains valid here.'

If you are holidaying overseas this week, remember you are no longer in the comparative security of the Hong Kong high-rise environment. Ignition keys that are left hanging on a hook or sitting on a table beside the door of a holiday home in Europe are an easy target for opportunist criminals, the foundation says. 'This is an increasingly popular technique employed by burglars who now believe that it is easier to break into the house or help themselves to the car keys when the house door is open than to run the gauntlet of sophisticated security devices fitted to many up-market vehicles,' it warns. And while robbers are in the home, 'they may as well help themselves to as much booty as they can fit into their waiting boot', the foundation adds, explains some brazen criminals resort to 'hooking', and lift keys through a letterbox on a long piece of wire.

The foundation warns about 'jacking' - where thieves can lie in wait for a car owner and remove his ignition keys by force before driving the vehicle away. Worse, robbers can 'pounce on unsuspecting motorists stopped at traffic lights or junctions, forcibly evicting them from their cars before driving off at high speed. Other thieves smash and grab at traffic lights and run off with handbags and laptops,' the foundation says. These crimes may be rare in Hong Kong, but not over Christmas in Manchester, Milan or Montreal. And in Manila, where teenaged vendors teem in the gridlock, a 'hawker' can stick a knife or a pistol through the window of a car and rob you of your Christmas presents and the car you didn't lock because you were so used to the comparative safety of Hong Kong.

The foundation and the police recommend drivers minimise the risk of crime by parking in well-lit, populated areas with closed-circuit TV coverage and keep vehicle doors locked while driving in urban areas. 'Leave a space from the car in front when parked at lights and be vigilant,' the foundation adds. 'Hide bags and valuables in the boot or under the seat.'

But if you do lose your car in Hong Kong, you can take heart in the knowledge the police's recovery rate has risen, from 42.65 per cent in 2001 to 47.69 per cent in the 11 months this year. But a police recovery pound is not the best place to spend a family Christmas.