Almost as long as there have been cars, there have been carjackings — thefts of occupied automobiles committed through force, or threat of force. During Prohibition, shipments of alcohol were regularly intercepted by armed robbers, and other inventory-carrying commercial vehicles then became targets. Carjacking of personal vehicles became increasingly prominent in media reports in the 1990s after some high-profile incidents in which victims died during the robbery. The crime became a federal offense in 1992.

In recent years, reports of carjackings have increased in several cities. In Chicago, carjackings more than doubled in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021. Since 2019, carjackings in Philadelphia have more than tripled. Officials in New Orleans, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis have all reported similar spikes.

Bruce Jacobs, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, has extensively studied the crime. He started his research in the early 2000s, describing it as a natural progression from studying other street crimes in St. Louis, Missouri, where he had been researching illegal drug distribution, drug-related violence and robbery.

To understand the steps and motivations that drive carjackings, Jacobs and his collaborators used both crime-reporting data and interviews with active carjackers. Recently, Jacobs and Michael Cherbonneau, a criminologist at the University of North Florida, described insights into the scope and process of carjacking in the 2023 Annual Review of Criminology.

Knowable Magazine spoke with Jacobs to discuss what he’s learned about this crime and his takeaways for prevention. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve been studying carjacking, off and on, for about 20 years now. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned?

I think maybe the most surprising thing is just the unpredictability of this crime. Other violent crimes usually have a certain pattern to them geographically or temporally. There may be some sort of interpersonal connection between the victim and the offender. Or, in stranger-on-stranger crimes, like robbery typically is, there are usually hotspots within a city that are more prone to experiencing those types of crimes.

With carjacking, it’s so spur-of-the-moment. The offender sees a vulnerable target and an opportunity to strike. It may not be in a so-called hotspot of a city. Really, anybody driving a car in public is potentially at risk. From the perspective of the victim, they may just be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vintage photograph of policemen searching a vehicle with a hidden compartment

Policemen search a bootlegger’s vehicle used for smuggling alcohol. During Prohibition, armed robbers often intercepted such vehicles — among the first reports of carjacking.


Why do people choose to carjack rather than steal an unoccupied car?

A lot of carjackers don’t like the ambiguity and the uncertainty of a potential victim coming out of their house or their business while they are stealing a car. Whereas with carjacking, the vehicle’s on, the keys are inside, the victim’s inside. It’s simply a matter of going up to them, displaying the weapon, telling them to get out of the car or throwing them out of the car, and taking the vehicle. It’s very quick. It’s very simple. That’s what some of our carjackers would say: It’s safer to carjack than to steal a vehicle off the street.

Cars today also have more security features than in the past. Does that also make carjacking a preferred option?

That’s what the evidence seems to show. Back in the day, you could break into an Oldsmobile or a Chevy, strip the ignition column, jam a screwdriver in there, and it starts in 30 seconds. With these modern cars, you can’t do that anymore. They require these chips and proximity readers. A lot of the electronics are much more advanced and not accessible to a thief with a screwdriver. So there does seem to be what might be called tactical displacement, where these offenders figure out, “If I identify the car I want, I’m just gonna take it by force. It’s already on and the keys are in it.”

Several major US cities have experienced dramatic rises in carjacking since the pandemic hit. What’s behind that trend?

First, the technology issue that we just talked about — it’s just getting harder and harder to steal cars off the street. Second, the pandemic, I think, played a large part as well. Due to the school shutdowns, younger at-risk offenders found themselves unsupervised with a lot of time on their hands. And the ubiquitous Covid mask allowed them substantially enhanced anonymity.

But it’s very difficult to do a year-to-year or city-to-city analysis because the data are not maintained that way on a federal level or even on a state or local level. Most jurisdictions don’t track carjacking separately from other forms of robbery. So we had to rely on reports from police officials who did track it in some of these cities.

To research carjacking, you’ve interviewed active offenders. How did you conduct these interviews?

Those active offenders were identified to us through a specially trained project field worker who I came to know over the years as part of my duties as a criminologist in St. Louis. He was an active offender himself. He had multiple and ongoing contacts with active offenders — not in jail or prison, but out on the street. He was trusted amongst the folks that he referred, and we had worked with him for many years.

So we relied on him to identify offenders and convey those respondents to us. Then we would interview them at length, through in-depth and semi-structured interviews, about why they did it, how they did it, where they did it, who they selected for targets.

What did you learn about decision-making and motives from your interviews?

The economic motives are probably primary — stealing the vehicle to chop it up for parts, or, not infrequently, we see these vehicles being stolen for their accessory items, like performance rims and high-end audio systems, which might be worth more than the car itself.

There are sometimes retaliatory motives where somebody is showboating their vehicle and driving in a way that is disrespectful to the would-be offender, and they'll just take it to teach a lesson. We’ve seen carjackings that are committed in the course of some other crime — for example, to escape. We’ve had carjackings done for thrills, especially among young offenders who are just looking for a rush.

There’s a variety of motives that energize this offense. It really depends on the offender and the situation that they’re in.

In terms of offender decision-making, it lines up with a lot of what we know about predatory violence more generally. Despite the opportunistic, spur-of-the-moment, crude way in which many of these offenses are carried out, there is a reasonable degree of calculation on the part of many of these offenders. There’s calculation in sizing up their targets, figuring out how to approach their target, figuring out the ideal place to commit these crimes to lower risk of detection, and then using force within the actual offense to maximize the likelihood of compliance.

It’s striking just how quickly these decisions are made. You’re talking about literally under a minute for most of the offenses to unfold and be done. I’ve reviewed thousands of police reports and video evidence of carjackings around the country. All that evidence seems to indicate most of these offenses are very, very quick.


You write that media accounts often give a skewed picture of carjacking. Why do you say that?

The carjackings that typically get reported in the media tend to be disproportionately violent, disproportionately graphic, because those kinds of stories generate eyeballs, and eyeballs generate ratings, which mean profit. You’ve got to be very careful not to suggest that those events are representative of the broader universe of carjackings.

Carjackings are very, very rarely fatal — in the tenths of a percent. And they very rarely involve serious victim injury: Only 1 percent of victims are hospitalized.

Bar graph showing that carjackings rarely involve other violent offences.

Most of the time, carjackers just want the car. Other violent acts against the driver are relatively rare during a carjacking, as these US figures from 2007-2016 show.

Based on your research, how can potential carjacking victims keep themselves safe?

Potential victims really have to educate themselves on being alert. It’s as simple as just being aware of your surroundings and people lurking on the periphery of your vehicle. There are certain points where you’re more vulnerable than others: when you get inside your vehicle, when you get outside of your vehicle, at traffic lights, at gas stations. That’s when you’re at highest risk. That’s what we’ve noticed not only in our interview-based research, but also from other researchers in the field, media sources and police sources.

Just being aware of those points, I think, can enhance victim safety. If you get that kind of gnawing feeling that something’s about to go down, I would listen to that sixth sense.

But can’t being super vigilant be exhausting and potentially cause us to view well-meaning strangers as threats?

There’s a balance. You don’t want to be paranoid. With paranoia, you can almost put the idea in the offender’s head. And we’ve seen that in our interviews, like, “Oh, I wasn't really even thinking about it, but this guy looked at me a certain way or looked paranoid or scared or afraid and then you know, the car was right there.” These crimes are so opportunistic and spur-of-the-moment that that can set them off.

You want to be able to be attuned to your surroundings so that you can react quickly if necessary. At least at certain times when you’re potentially vulnerable, just minimizing distractions that might undermine that situational awareness can help.

What about when the carjacking is already happening? What should victims do?

This is a difficult crime for a victim to manage. When you’re getting carjacked, you don’t know what’s happening. You might think you’re being abducted. And if the victim panics, then that can escalate really badly, quickly. If the vehicle’s on and the driver’s inside, the car can be both a weapon and a shield, so that can encourage resistance on the victim’s part. Even with a gun in your face, if you think you’re being abducted or about to be killed, you might just floor it to get away. That can potentially escalate the violence to you as the victim. Offenders get mad when you’re non-compliant. If they have a gun, they’re liable to fire it. Ironically, it’s really the carjacker’s job, to let you know, “Hey, I just want your car, get out and you’re not gonna get hurt.” Sometimes that doesn’t happen.

It’s hard to give universal advice, it’s very situational. The general best advice is not to resist, give them what they want.