The history and futility of car alarms

For pretty much all of us, our first reaction when he hear a car alarm go off is to think “Oh, hell, I hope someone shuts it off soon”. Almost no one thinks about calling the police to tell them that a car is being stolen. I had thought that these were a new invention, within the last two decades or so, but Zachary Crockett writes that they were first developed as far back as 1913.

He says that our suspicions that the alarms do not signal a theft in progress is justified by the data that shows that 95-99% of alarms were falsely set off by “vibrations of passing trucks, or glitches in the car’s electrical system” or “loud music, strong gusts of wind, and cats”. Only 5% of people report taking action against a possible theft but 59% have reacted by filing complaints about the noise.

Car alarms are a poor defense against theft because professional thieves can often disable them within seconds or a few minutes for the more sophisticated ones. Furthermore, not only do they do little to prevent theft, they actually enable them. He says that some criminals deliberately set them off, sometimes with many cars, so that the alarms mask the sound of them breaking the car’s windows.

It turns out that there are better systems than the annoying car alarms. One is a device that immobilizes the car. Another is something that alerts just the car owner. But these do not seem to have caught on.

Car alarms going off falsely are a serious problem in bigger cities where cars are densely parked on the streets and can easily be triggered accidentally and people live in apartment buildings that abut the streets and thus can hear the noise. I live in a suburban area where cars are parked in garages and thus less likely to be set off accidentally. Even if they do, the houses are separated and so there are fewer people nearby to hear them. In fact, I hardly ever hear a car alarm go off.


  1. lorn says

    The responses to car and house alarms are easily manipulated. A common tactic is to trigger a number of false alarms so that people are primed to assume that all alarms are false. Then, they break in for real. To make things worse there is a good chance people won’t care about the theft and damage because they are still pissed off about all the false alarms.

    A lot of people have shifted to blinking a simple blinking LED on the dash. Most are connected to exactly nothing but some might have an alarm or ignition, and/or fuel pump, disconnect. Up side is that it is at least a quiet ruse.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Another problem with car alarms -- making and selling them turned Darrell Issa into a multimillionaire.

    That in turn led to him winning a seat in Congress, where he has made that institution, and the USA, worse.

  3. kyoseki says

    My car has keyless entry & ignition, so smashing the window won’t get you very far.

    If you can defeat the keyless system, you can gain entry to the car without triggering the alarm.

    I’m honestly not sure what purpose the alarm serves other than to go off humorously because the panic button got pressed by my housekeys when I sat down.

    Honestly, is there a more useless button on the planet than the “panic” button on keyfobs?

    I don’t use ANY of the buttons on the damned keyfob, all I want is a fob with the keyless transponder, but no, apparently I’m expected to carry something the size of a small rodent around in my pocket on the off chance I want to open the trunk without all the rigmarole of actually walking up to it and pressing the damned button.

  4. Heidi Nemeth says

    I’m short, and I own a car which looks like many other cars in most parking lots in the region. I’m also forgetful. I use the alarm button to help me find my car when I have misplaced it it the vast parking lots here in the Midwest. Which means I use the alarm button quite often. I find it very useful.

  5. EigenSprocketUK says

    Heidi (4), it would be quieter if you tied a ribbon of your chosen colour to the aerial/antenna, or anything like that which works for you. People distinguish their luggage on airport baggage reclaims, and similar tricks could work for your car. Setting off the alarm seems the more inconsiderate option, and a tactic which only works when you reserve it to yourself.

  6. Mano Singham says


    The people who break the windows aren’t doing so to steal the car but the things inside it.

  7. Numenaster says

    EigenSprocket, I was going to make the same comment as Heidi only referencing the vast parking lots of the Northwest. I have given thought to creating a visual trick like you suggest, and have been unable to find one because of these two facts: 1) I am 5 foot 6 inches tall, and 2) my car is a compact. I cannot see over half the vehicles in the parking lot, and my car has only a tiny stub of an aerial. The only visual cue I could be sure of spotting would require repainting the car in whole or in part. Until I hear that the inconsideration of my alarm costs someone as much as a paint job would cost me, I’m sticking with the key fob.

  8. kyoseki says

    The people who break the windows aren’t doing so to steal the car but the things inside it.

    Well, I never leave anything in the car either 🙂

  9. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I would get something like a lo-jack or similar vehicle tracking system if 1) I owned anything worth stealing and 2) I was inclined to invest that kind of money in a system that’s pretty pricey.

    There are some newer systems that are much smaller and less expensive that I have been looking at. Not for my car, but for my motorcycle(s) and bicycle. They are collectively worth more than my 19 year old car, and are much easier to steal.

  10. EigenSprocketUK says

    Fair point, Numenaster. In the UK we have compact cars by default, so it’s easier to find our cars. A side benefit is getting twice the mileage. 😉

  11. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    There was a guy near where I lived in NYC who had an alarm so sensitive it went off constantly all night long for about two weeks. Then one night I hear another siren sound, and the sound of loud truck engines. I get out of bed to look out the window and someone had set the guy’s car on fire.

    A bit of an extreme solution but it seems a nuisance car alarm is more a lightning rod for your neighbors’ wrath than anything useful.

  12. jockmcdock says

    @kyoseki (#8) “Well, I never leave anything in the car either”

    A story I read in a newspaper some years ago (possibly apocryphal)…A guy attached a note to the windscreen of his parked car. The note said “Please do not break into this car. The car contains no money, no drugs and no weapons”. When he came back, the car had been broken into. And the thief had made a small addition to the note--“Just checking”.

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