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Not to be confused with the a car jack, a device for lifting up the body of the vehicle.

Carjacking is a robbery (i.e., a theft by force, violence, or intimidation) in which the item stolen is a motor vehicle.[1]


The word is a portmanteau of car and hijacking. The term was coined by reporter Scott Bowles and EJ Mitchell, an editor with The Detroit News.[2] The News first used the term in a 1991 report on the murder of Ruth Wahl, a 22-year-old Detroit drugstore cashier who was killed when she would not surrender her Suzuki Sidekick, and in an investigative report examining the rash of what police called at the time "robbery armed unlawful driving away an automobile" plaguing Detroit.[3]

Carjacking prevention and response[edit]

Common carjacking ruses include: (1) bumping the victim's vehicle from behind, and taking the car when the victim gets out of the vehicle to assess damage and exchange information; (2) staging a fake car accident, sometimes with injuries, and stealing the vehicle of a good Samaritan who stops to assist; (3) flashing lights or waving to get the victim's attention, indicating that there is a problem with the victim's car, and then taking the car once the victim pulls over; and (4) following a victim home, blocking the victim's car in a driveway or in front of a gate.[4]

Police departments, security agencies, and auto insurers have published lists of strategies for preventing and responding to carjackings.[4][5][6] Common recommendations include:

  • Staying alert and being aware of one's surroundings[4][5]
  • Parking in well-lighted areas[5][6]
  • Keeping vehicle doors locked and windows up[4][5]
  • Avoiding unfamiliar or high-crime areas[4][5]
  • Alerting police as soon as safely possible following a carjacking[4][5]
  • Avoid isolated and less-well-trafficked parking lots, ATMs, pay phones, etc.[4][5][6]
  • When stopped in traffic, keeping some distance between the vehicle in front, so one can pull away easily if necessary.[4][5]
  • If confronted, it is often safer to give up the vehicle and avoid resisting[4][5]

Carjackings in the world[edit]

South Africa[edit]

A sign in South Africa warning drivers

Carjacking is a significant problem in South Africa, where it is called hijacking; there are some roadsigns warning people that certain areas are hotspots. There were 16,000 carjackings in 1998.[7]

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several new, unconventional anti-carjacking systems designed to harm the attacker were developed and marketed in South Africa, where carjacking had become endemic. Among these was the now defunct Blaster, a small flame-thrower that could be mounted to the underside of a vehicle.[8]

United States[edit]

In 1992, Congress, in the aftermath of a spate of violent carjackings (including some in which the victims were murdered), passed the Federal Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 (FACTA), the first federal carjacking law, making it a federal crime (punishable by 15 years to life imprisonment) to use a firearm to steal "through force or violence or intimidation" a motor vehicle that had been shipped through interstate commerce.[1] The 1992 Act, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 2119, took effect on October 25, 1992.[9][10] However, only a small number of federal prosecutions were imposed for carjacking the year after the act was enacted, in part because many federal carjacking cases were turned over to state prosecutions because they do not meet U.S. Department of Justice criteria.[9] The Federal Death Penalty Act, part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an omnibus crime bill, made sixty new federal crimes punishable by the federal death penalty; among these were the killing of a victim in the commission of carjacking.[1][10][11]

Throughout 1993, articles about carjackings appeared at the rate of more than one a week in newspapers throughout the country.[12]

The November 29, 1992, killing of two Osceola County, Florida men by carjackers using a stolen 9 mm pistol resulted in the first federal prosecution of a fatal carjacking.[13]

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1993 to 2002, some 38,000 carjacking victimization occurred annually.[14] According to the survey, over this time period men were more often victims than women, blacks more than whites, and Hispanics more than non-Hispanics.[14] Some 93 percent of carjackings occurred in urban areas.[14][15] There were multiple carjackers in 56% of incidents, and the carjacker or carjackers were identified as male in 93% of incidents.[14] A weapon was used in 74% of carjacking victimizations: firearms in 45%, knives in 11%, and other weapons in 18%. About 32% of victims of completed carjackings are 17% of victims of serious injuries were injured; serious injuries, such as gunshot or knife wounds, broken bones, or internal injuries occurred in about 9% of incidents.[14] About 14 murders a year involved car theft, but not all of these were carjackings.[14] There were multiple carjackers in 56% of incidents, and the carjacker or carjackers were identified as male in 93% of incidents.[14] Some 68% of carjackings occurred at nighttime hours (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.).[14] Some 98% of completed carjackings and 77% of attempted carjackings were reported to police.[14] About 44% of carjacking incidents occurred in an open area (e.g., on the street or near public transportation) while 24% occurred in parking lots or garages or near commercial places (e.g., stores, gas stations, office buildings, restaurants/bars).[14]

According to the NCVS, from 1992 and 1996, about 49,000 completed or attempted nonfatal carjackings took place each year in the United States. The carjacking was successful in about half of incidents. Data on fatal carjackings are not available; "about 27 homicides by strangers each year involved automobile theft," but not all of these were carjackings.[16]

Carjackings were common in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1990s, and a wave of carjackings took place again in 2010.[17] There were 288 carjackings in the city in 2010 (a 70% increase from the previous year), and Essex County (which includes Newark) had 69 in December 2010 alone.[17] The Associated Press reported that "unlike previous carjackings, in which thieves would strip vehicles for parts or sell them in other states, the recent wave perplexed law enforcement officials because almost all appeared to be done by thrill-seeking young men who would steal the cars for a few hours, drive them around and then abandon them."[17] After federal, state, and law enforcement agencies formed a task force, 42 suspects were charged, and carjackings dropped dramatically.[17] However, national media attention on carjackings in Essex County returned in December 2013, when a Hoboken lawyer was murdered at The Mall at Short Hills in Millburn, New Jersey, while defending his wife from four assailants. Four defendants were indicted in connection with the crime.[18][19][20]

The major U.S. city with the highest rates of carjacking is Detroit.[21] In 2008, Detroit had 1,231 carjackings, more than three a day.[21] By 2013, that number had fallen to 701, but this was still the highest known number of carjackings for any major city in the country.[21] The significant decrease in carjackings was credited to a coordinated effort by the Detroit Police Department, the FBI, and the local federal prosecutor's office.[21] Serial carjackers were targeted for federal prosecutions and longer sentences, and in 2009 the Detroit Police Department centralized all carjacking investigations and developed a suspect profiling system.[21] Through mid-November 2014, Detroit had 486 carjackings, down 31% from the year before, but this was still three times more than the carjackings experienced by New York City (which has ten times Detroit's population) in all of 2013.[21] Even James Craig, chief of police of the Detroit Police Department, was the victim of an attempted carjacking while he was in his police cruiser.[21]

The law of some states, such as Louisiana, explicitly lists a killing in the course of defending oneself against forcible entry of an occupied motor vehicle as a justifiable homicide.[1][22][23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Michael Cherbonneau, "Carjacking," in Encyclopedia of Social Problems, Vol. 1 (SAGE, 2008: ed. Vincent N. Parrillo), pp. 110-11.
  2. ^ Pulitzer, Lisa Beth. Crime On Deadline. New York, New York: Boulevard Books, 1996
  3. ^ The Detroit News, August 28, 1991
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Carjacking—Don't be a Victim, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security (August 2002).
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i NOPD crime prevention: How to avoid being carjacked, New Orleans Police Department.
  6. ^ a b c Preventing Carjacking / Theft, Insurance Information Institute.
  7. ^ Rory Caroll, Carjacking: the everyday ordeal testing South Africa, Guardian (March 2, 2006).
  8. ^ "Flamethrower now an option on S. African cars". CNN. Retrieved April 28, 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Mike Folks, Carjacking Law Getting Little Use: Few Prosecutions Occur Despite Increase in Number of Cases, Sun-Sentinel (January 17, 1994).
  10. ^ a b 18 U.S.C. § 2119.
  11. ^ Amy D'Olivio, "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act" in Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement (Sage, 2004: eds. Larry E. Sullivan et al.), p. 896.
  12. ^ "Carjacking Reports Increase In Area -- Police Told Of Five Incidents Over Thanksgiving Holiday." Seattle Times, Saturday, November 26, 1994
  13. ^ Henry Pierson Curtis, Youths Steal Guns To Steal Youths' Lives; The Gun Used In The Nation's First Federal Carjacking Case Was Bought Legally, Then Stolen, Orlando Sentinel, January 30, 1994.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Patsy Klaus, National Crime Victimization Survey, Carjacking, 1993-2002, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2004.
  15. ^ Benjamin S. Wright, Motor Vehicle Theft, in Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America (Sage 2010: ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross), p. 271.
  16. ^ Patsy Klaus, Carjackings in the United States, 1992-96, .S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, March 1999.
  17. ^ a b c d Associated Press, After Dozens of Arrests, Newark Carjackings Decline Sharply, March 21, 2011.
  18. ^ Marc Santora & Annie Correaldec, Man Dies in Carjacking at Short Hills Mall; 2 Suspects Are Sought, New York Times, December 16, 2013.
  19. ^ Michael Schwirtzdec, 4 Suspects Held in Fatal Carjacking at Mall, New York Times, December 21, 2013.
  20. ^ Associated Press, 4 Men Plead Not Guilty in Deadly Mall Carjacking, October 22, 2014.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Tresa Baldas, Carjackers losing grip on Detroit, but strike daily, Detroit Free Press (November 30, 2014).
  22. ^ Associated Press, Louisiana Drivers Given License to Kill (August 14, 1997).
  23. ^ Susan Michelle Gerlin, Louisiana's New "Kill the Carjacker" Statute: Self-Defense or Instant Injustice?, 55 Wash. U. J. Urb. & Contemp. L. 10, (January 1999).

External links[edit]