Appendix

  • "Hot Wheels" video: Chasing a 13 year-old car thief
  • An equity profile of Pinellas County, by UNITE Pinellas
  • Root causes of trauma, incentives and social norms
  • Findings from other studies on youth auto theft
‘Why do these kids steal cars?’ is the wrong question being redundantly asked by local leaders. The better question – after a more accurate understanding of the incentives and circumstances of these youth – is
‘Why not?’

"Hot Wheels"

September 28, 2018

Hot Wheels: Chasing 13 year-old car thief Tyron "T-man" McKinnon

An equity profile of Pinellas County, by UNITE Pinellas

Root causes of trauma, incentives and social norms

Root causes of trauma, incentives and social norms

Family disruption and childhood trauma are highly associated with negative behaviors

Poverty creates stress, prevents families from providing material needs, and can reduce parents’ presence in their children’s lives.[1] Lacking parental support, youth can engage in compromising behaviors.

The presence of adults in the family and high-quality relationships improves opportunities for youth.[2] When there is less parental presence and less supervision of youth – for example when a parent is working multiple jobs or has been incarcerated – there is higher likelihood for youth to engage in problem behaviors or experiment with activity that can get them in trouble with the law.[3]

Childhood traumas can have long-term effects on youth. Research shows that there is a strong link between childhood trauma and a variety of physical and mental health outcomes, including disruptive behavior, antisocial behavior, psychosis, and mood disorders. [4] [5] [6] According to The Tampa Bay Times investigation, community meetings in Pinellas, and focus groups conducted for this study, many of the youth that have been joyriding have experienced 1 or more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

“Adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) is a term used to describe traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being of young people long after the initial exposure to the traumatic event. These experiences range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to parental divorce, marital violence, or the incarceration of a parent or guardian. Florida has the third highest rate of incarcerated parents in the country.[7] Having a parent incarcerated affects a child’s development and behavior.[8]

Childhood traumas increase the likelihood of physical and behavioral health problems in adulthood.[9] Among the youth that have stolen cars in Pinellas County and in other places, there is a high incidence of adverse childhood experiences. Some of the issues that joyriding teens in Pinellas County have experienced include domestic violence in the home, parental incarceration, eviction and housing instability, and child abuse or neglect.[10]

Kids who went through the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (FDJJ) have high rates of trauma. A study compared the results of the intakes of over 64,000 FDJJ youth results from youth in the national Kaiser study about ACEs (i.e., not justice-involved). They found that justice-involved youth had “disturbingly high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences.”[11] (Figures X and Y). The Florida study authors conclude, “Policy implications underline the need to screen for and address ACEs as early as possible to prevent reoffending and other well-documented sequelae.”[12]

Figure X. ACEs in Florida justice-involved youth compared to a national sample


Figure Y: Rates of ACEs in Florida justice-involved youth


Source: Baglivio MT, Epps N, Swartz K, Sayedul Huq M, Sheer A, Hardt NS. 2014. The prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the lives of juvenile offenders. Journal of Juvenile Justice 3(2):1-22

We must be careful in considering trauma in childhood to not demonize parents, who have often faced their own similar issues that may have gone untreated. As with behavioral issues in adolescents that are the topic of this report, it is important to support parents in solving and treating their own trauma, while teaching parenting skills and ensuring the safety of children. Without that support and oversight, the possibility of intergenerational involvement contributing to children’s negative behaviors and crime is virtually assured.

Joyriding is a way that youth create their own power

To survive and thrive, young people need an outlet to grow their personal and community power. Their growing autonomy leads them to try new behaviors and to exert a level of control or choice they did not experience at a younger age.[13] It is an intrinsic part of a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t get enough attention from public health officials or at annual doctor checkups. Youth in Pinellas County are exerting their power. Unfortunately their chosen assertion of power has created another public health crisis - fatal and nonfatal car crashes caused by teen joyriding.

In communities where youth are policed in schools and in the community, families are separated, and schools are segregated, taking a car and going for a ride is less about hurting the community they belong to and more about declaring independence and finding joy. This pastime is in response to the social conditions described earlier in this report that are not rich in opportunities for personal transformation and character development.”[14]

In a study of youth involved with joyriding, researchers found that the youth came from the city’s most deprived areas[15] – similar to many of the Pinellas youth that steal cars. This same study found that the top 3 reasons for stealing cars were joyriding, transportation, and “for the thrill of it.”[16] Authors of the studies of joyriding in Australia state that the pastime “may be interpreted as a form of resistance to their social and economic marginalization in society.”[17]

The Canadian study of youth joyriding notes that cities are designed for cars, and cars are symbols of freedom, economic status, risk, and danger. Because of their age and/or economic circumstances, most of the youth they interviewed did not have legitimate access to cars. In response to the lack of control over their own lives and the boredom resulting from the lack of control and choices, some individuals steal cars.”[18] These authors note that “youth can gain empowerment and self-actualization by stealing cars – they are in control and are able to free themselves from their daily routines and constraints. Even if these young people had other opportunities for edgework, it would be hard to compete with the thrill of driving around the city in a stolen car with their friends.”[19]

Joyriding and stealing cars is a response to peer pressure and a way for youth to build community

In the studies on youth that joyride, peer pressure also plays a large role. One study found that 65% of the youth said they felt peer pressure to steal cars - that stealing cars clearly helped the youth to feel included in their peer groups.[20] Given that most youth are passengers in cars that have been stolen by friends and used for joyriding before taking a car themselves, it is clear that auto theft and joyriding is a skill that is passed along among networks of youth.

Researchers found that joyriding culture in Australia may be seen as one area where youth can construct their identity through participation with their peers and obtain a sense of belonging through a perception of group solidarity.[21] In Canada, researchers similarly conclude that because of their ability to easily acquire the skills of stealing cars from friends and because of the low clearance rate, these youth are usually able to control the risk, a further form of empowerment.[22]

In studies of peer pressure and delinquency, researchers conclude that peer pressure is such a strong influence that people are willing to say things that they know are not true and succumb to groupthink - a main cause of criminal behavior. As children get to their middle teens, the peer group becomes possibly the most important influence on attitudes, goals, and conduct norms. This may lead them to weigh acceptance by peers more heavily as they consider the tradeoffs of their actions and decisions. Peer groups are so powerful that members are willing to deviate from the norms of society in order to protect the interest, values, norms, and expectations of their group. - thus members are under pressure to conform to peer subculture because the group consists of friends and people they value highly and depend on for getting along in life. As such, presence of anti-social peers is a major determinant of criminal behavior among children of 12-14 years. Symptoms of peer pressure are even more problematic especially where parental bonding is emotionally or otherwise lacking or weak.” [23] [24]

It is vital at this chaotic and fragile time in a youth’s development that he or she feel supported and guided. Caretakers continue to be a primary source of emotional and material support and those relationships are significant, but positive connections outside of the family may be a protective factor when there is family conflict or a lack of family support. Formal and informal mentorships are one way to achieve this and have been tied to a decrease in high-risk behaviors.[25]

Unfortunately, arrest, court processing, and typical dispositions in the juvenile justice system often achieve the exact opposite of what an adolescent needs during this time. Instead of support, guidance, and esteem-boosting, youth in the juvenile justice system receive suspicion, distrust, punishment, and disruption of family relationships and mentorship.

To prevent youth from becoming entrenched in a culture of crime, we must coordinate a response that addresses the social and economic factors that result in many young people being marginalized from participating in society.


Findings from other studies of youth auto theft

This section summarizes research specific to teen auto theft from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, and Scotland. Due to differences in the population of the countries, we use caution with any inferences drawn to the population in Pinellas County.

Demographics of teens who steal cars and joyride

Studies identify similar characteristics of youth who steal cars and joyride.[26] [27] [28] [29] [30] The large majority are boys. The average age of first involvement in auto theft is 12, and average age that kids begin stealing is 13. Kids who joyride typically have an interest in “car culture”. Schools that these kids are in have not succeeded in engaging them, and in fact suspend or expel them at high rates. The kids also exhibit outcomes from exclusion from the employment market; in most studies, youth are from low-income families, and the teens have low rates of employment themselves. Contributing to the challenges some of these kids face, a large proportion live with only one parent, usually their mother, and in one study over half had run away from home at least once. The same study found that about one-third of the youth had not had a relationship with their father for over ten years.[31]

Studies in Queensland Australia found that there was a disproportionate number of Aboriginal youth arrested for stealing cars, but in Canadian studies they found that most of the youth were White.[32] [33]

One study surveyed youth who had stolen cars or considered it and youth who had not. They found that the two populations were different in a couple of ways: youth involved in car theft did less homework and engaged in fewer formal extracurricular activities, and they also experienced less parental supervision and discipline at home. Many youth have themselves been involved with illegal activities of some sort, and a majority have family members who have been involved in the justice system.[34]

Stealing cars and joyriding is a spontaneous, recurring group activity for kids

The literature is remarkably consistent with regard to youth involvement in auto theft and joyriding. Most kids who get involved in auto theft and joyriding are first introduced to it by going with their friends and sitting as passengers in the cars. The activity is rarely planned ahead, but is a re-ocurring activity these groups of kids engage in. By and large people “grow out” of stealing cars as they age and get married or have other responsibilities. Most youth use drugs or alcohol, but that use may or may not have anything to do with auto theft. And while kids may have involvement in other crimes, many focus specifically on car theft.[35]

Kids steal cars and go joyriding for fun and to have a short-term mode of transportation

The most common response in all of the studies for why kids steal cars and joyride is for recreation. Recreation can mean different things: to combat boredom; for the thrill, excitement, and risk-taking of stealing and driving fast; as an activity to engage in with their peer group; and because they like driving. Others steal cars for transportation – to get from one place to another particularly when there is poor public transport and families do not have the income to own a car. However, whether or not there is a family car, some youth simply stole cars “to get places”. Some steal cars for short- or long-term personal use or sometimes for the commission of another crime, however one study noted that cars were often abandoned less than 24 hours after they were stolen, indicating that kids do not typically steal cars to keep them, strip them, or sell them.[36]

Understanding the motivations that lead kids to steal cars and go joyriding

Several studies looked beyond individual demographics in thinking through analyses. It stems from societal exclusion — Dawes considered the role that societal exclusion plays in kids stealing cars. Ne notes that kids and their families are often excluded from employment, resulting in intergenerational unemployment. Many of the kids were not well engaged in educational attainment, which led to not aspiring to traditional employment pathways. He also points out that kids who joyride tend to use the streets for congregating, due in part to not having jobs and not being in school. Because congregating in the streets by young males is often criminalized, stealing cars offers kids a space to interact with friends without threat of surveillance. Finally, many of the youth in this Queensland, Australia study are indigenous, another factor in societal exclusion. Dawes states that marginalized young people may steal cars as a response to the process of exclusion, and that stealing cars offers them the opportunity to move from one space to another, to interact with friends without the threat of surveillance, and individual autonomy and freedom that is often denied to them in other situations.”[37]

It’s a sign of self-determination and empowerment: Another study on youth joyriding uses the concept of edgework to help illustrate a key motivation for youth who joyride.[38] “Edgework” is when people behave in a way they know is risky but engage in it anyway. This concept can help understanding of the risk youth are undertaking when they joyride. As sociologist Lyng states, “people value risk taking because it is the only means they have for achieving self-determination and authenticity.”[39] As stated above, the majority of youth involved in joyriding come from single parent households, have not had success at school or at work, and have few opportunities to engage in exciting activities that do not involve law breaking. Researchers conclude that youth gain empowerment by stealing cars, where they are in control and free themselves from daily routines and constraints.[40] In fact, interviews with youth involved in auto theft show that one motivation is the power, status, recognition, and masculinity of it.

It’s an addictive activity — The similarity that the repeated car theft and joyriding has to addiction is another consideration for why kids engage in this behavior. Many of the responses in interviews about why youth steal cars echo characteristics of addiction. As with drug and alcohol use, one of the main motivations for joyriding seems to be mood-modification. One youth who stole cars said, for example “you get a buzz out of drugs, yeah, well {stealing cars] is 10 times better than that.”[41] Other studies noted that stealing cars helped kids transcend the realities of their lives. Characteristics of addiction include craving, developing a tolerance that requires more dangerous theft, faster or bigger cars, withdrawal, relapse. In interviews with youth who steal cars, about three-quarters thought it could be addictive and about half felt that they were personally addicted. The proof that they gave was that they “couldn’t stop doing it” and felt out of control, and the thrill or high they experienced while doing it.[42] The consideration of car theft as an addiction for a subset of the youth doing it can frame interventions to incorporate harm reduction approaches and potentially use other addiction theories.

It’s a way to create social ties with peers — The role of a peer group is also very important. The peer group provides the catalyst for introduction and continuation of joyriding. A peer group provides a structure for learning skills of car theft, for becoming a leader in a joyriding crew, and it provides an identity for individuals who may lack a close family or school identity.[43] In most studies, all of the respondents had friends who stole cars and many reported peer pressure and status gains for engaging in car theft and joyriding.[44]

It aligns with a ‘car culture’ — Another consideration is that many kids who steal cars are, not surprisingly, very interested in cars and the culture of cars. One study found that many youth who have stolen cars stated that their first driving and working on cars occurred with their father or another significant male in their family circle at an early age.[45] In our conversations with an intervention that offers youth the opportunity to learn auto bodywork instead of punishment (Synergy, see below), the staff said, “Our tradespeople who are training the kids love cars and can talk cars all day. Young people who are involved in the justice system for stealing cars love cars and can talk about them all day. It’s a good fit.”[46]

Arrest and detention are not effective deterrents

Again, several themes emerged across all studies. Kids who steal cars do not consider auto theft to be a serious crime, they believe their chance of being caught is small and even if they are caught, arrested, and detained, they are not deterred. Researchers have even identified that being sent to detention could be considered a “rite of passage”. Kids don’t understand that auto theft would ruin their image, their lives, and would have a negative effect on others, or at least do not consider these important deterrents. Youth are not deterred by punishment or the risk of car crashes; they perceive the benefits of auto theft as greater than the obvious costs.[47]

This limits deterrence-based policies. Strategies highlighting the risks of auto theft in terms of how it would diminish a youth’s image and life chances or have a negative impact on others are likely to have a limited impact. Strategies that focus on a youth’s desire to have fun may be more effective, for example providing recreational activities. Other research indicates that their preference would be for car-related activities, and their career aspirations were often related to cars. Authors suggest that broadening prevention services and activities to those who may be at risk but not involved yet, either through school or community-wide prevention strategies.[48]


[1] Harris C, Ortenburger M, Santiago F, Tellez A, Heller J. Juvenile InJustice: Charging Youth as Adults Is Ineffective, Biased, and Harmful. Human Impact Partners; 2017.

[2] Moretti MM, Peled M. 2004. Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development. Paediatr Child Health 9(8):551-5.

[3] Beyers JM, Bates JE, Pettit GS, Dodge KA. 2003. Neighborhood structure, parenting processes, and the development of youths’ externalizing behaviors: A multilevel analysis. American Journal of Community Psychology 31(1-2):35-53.

[4] Kitzmann KM, Gaylord NK, Holt AR, Kenny ED. 2003. Child witnesses to domestic violence: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 71(2):339-52.

[5] Keyes KM, Eaton NR, Krueger RF, et. al. 2012. Childhood maltreatment and the structure of common psychiatric disorders. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science 200(2):107-15.

[6] Turner HA, Finkelhor D, Ormrod R. 2006. The effect of lifetime victimization on the mental health of children and adolescents. Social Science and Medicine 62(1):13-27.

[7] Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2016. A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Fammilies, and Communities. Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kids Count. Available at http://floridakidscount.org/index.php/blog/84-burden-incarceration-florida-families

[8] Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2016. A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Fammilies, and Communities. Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kids Count. Available at http://floridakidscount.org/index.php/blog/84-burden-incarceration-florida-families

[9] Center for Health Care Strategies. Fact Sheet: Understanding the Effects of Trauma on Health. November 2016.

[10] Sampson ZT, Gartner L. 2017. Hot Wheels Series. Tampa Bay Times.

[11] Baglivio MT, Epps N, Swartz K, Sayedul Huq M, Sheer A, Hardt NS. 2014. The prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the lives of juvenile offenders. Journal of Juvenile Justice 3(2):1-22. Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/246951.pdf

[12] Baglivio MT, Epps N, Swartz K, Sayedul Huq M, Sheer A, Hardt NS. 2014. The prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the lives of juvenile offenders. Journal of Juvenile Justice 3(2):1-22. Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/246951.pdf

[13] Steinberg L. 2007. Risk taking in adolescence: New perspectives from brain and behavioral science. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16(2):55-9.

[14] Lyng S. 2005. Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking, ed Stephen Lyng. New York: Taylor.

[15] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[16] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[17] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[18] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[19] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[20] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[21] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[22] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[23] Omogho Esiri M. 2016. The influence of peer pressure on criminal behavior. Journal of Humanities and Social Science 21(1):8-14.

[24] Steinberg L. 2007. Risk taking in adolescence: New perspectives from brain and behavioral science. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16(2):55-9.

[25] Full Frame Initiative. 2016. The five domains of wellbeing for youth and youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The Full Frame Initiative. Available at https://fullframeinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/The-Five-Domains-of-Wellbeing-for-Youth-and-Youth-Involved-in-the-Juvenile-Justice-System-1.pdf

[26] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice April 2008:187-209.

[27] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[28] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[29] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[30] Kellett S, Gross H. 2007. Addicted to joyriding? An exploration of young offenders accounts of their car crime. Psychology, Crime & Law 12(1):39-59.

[31] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[32] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Apriil 2008:187-209.

[33] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[34] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Apriil 2008:187-209.

[35] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Apriil 2008:187-209.

[36] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[37] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[38] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[39] Lyng S. 2005. Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking, ed Stephen Lyng. New York: Taylor.

[40] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[41] Kellett S, Gross H. 2007. Addicted to joyriding? An exploration of young offenders accounts of their car crime. Psychology, Crime & Law 12(1):39-59.

[42] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[43] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[44] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[45] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[46] Crellin T. 2018. Private interview with Kim Gilhuly.

[47] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth Auto Theft: A Survey of a General Population of Canadian Youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice pp. 187-209.

[48] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth Auto Theft: A Survey of a General Population of Canadian Youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice pp. 187-209.


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Findings from other studies on youth auto theft

This section summarizes research specific to teen auto theft from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, and Scotland -- which reveals similarities to research of U.S. youth. However, due to differences in the population of the countries, we use caution with any inferences drawn specifically to the population in Pinellas County.


Studies identify similar characteristics of youth who steal cars and joyride.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] The large majority are boys. The average age of first involvement in auto theft is 12, and average age that kids begin stealing is 13. Kids who joyride typically have an interest in “car culture”. Schools that these kids are in have not succeeded in engaging them, and in fact suspend or expel them at high rates. The kids also exhibit outcomes from exclusion from the employment market; in most studies, youth are from low-income families, and the teens have low rates of employment themselves. Contributing to the challenges some of these kids face, a large proportion live with only one parent, usually their mother, and in one study over half had run away from home at least once. The same study found that about one-third of the youth had not had a relationship with their father for over ten years.[6]


Studies in Queensland Australia found that there was a disproportionate number of Aboriginal youth arrested for stealing cars, but in Canadian studies they found that most of the youth were White.[7] [8]


One study surveyed youth who had stolen cars or considered it and youth who had not. They found that the two populations were different in a couple of ways: youth involved in car theft did less homework and engaged in fewer formal extracurricular activities, and they also experienced less parental supervision and discipline at home. Many youth have themselves been involved with illegal activities of some sort, and a majority have family members who have been involved in the justice system.[9]


Stealing cars and joyriding is a spontaneous, recurring group activity for kids


The literature is remarkably consistent with regard to youth involvement in auto theft and joyriding. Most kids who get involved in auto theft and joyriding are first introduced to it by going with their friends and sitting as passengers in the cars. The activity is rarely planned ahead, but is a re-ocurring activity these groups of kids engage in. By and large people “grow out” of stealing cars as they age and get married or have other responsibilities. Most youth use drugs or alcohol, but that use may or may not have anything to do with auto theft. And while kids may have involvement in other crimes, many focus specifically on car theft.[10]

Kids steal cars and go joyriding for fun and to have a short-term mode of transportation.


The most common response in all of the studies for why kids steal cars and joyride is for recreation. Recreation can mean different things: to combat boredom; for the thrill, excitement, and risk-taking of stealing and driving fast; as an activity to engage in with their peer group; and because they like driving. Others steal cars for transportation – to get from one place to another particularly when there is poor public transport and families do not have the income to own a car. However, whether or not there is a family car, some youth simply stole cars “to get places”. Some steal cars for short- or long-term personal use or sometimes for the commission of another crime, however one study noted that cars were often abandoned less than 24 hours after they were stolen, indicating that kids do not typically steal cars to keep them, strip them, or sell them.[11]


Understanding the motivations that lead kids to steal cars and go joyriding


Several studies looked beyond individual demographics in thinking through analyses. It stems from societal exclusion — Dawes considered the role that societal exclusion plays in kids stealing cars. Ne notes that kids and their families are often excluded from employment, resulting in intergenerational unemployment. Many of the kids were not well engaged in educational attainment, which led to not aspiring to traditional employment pathways. He also points out that kids who joyride tend to use the streets for congregating, due in part to not having jobs and not being in school. Because congregating in the streets by young males is often criminalized, stealing cars offers kids a space to interact with friends without threat of surveillance. Finally, many of the youth in this Queensland, Australia study are indigenous, another factor in societal exclusion. Dawes states that marginalized young people may steal cars as a response to the process of exclusion, and that stealing cars offers them the opportunity to move from one space to another, to interact with friends without the threat of surveillance, and individual autonomy and freedom that is often denied to them in other situations.”[12]


It’s a sign of self-determination and empowerment: Another study on youth joyriding uses the concept of edgework to help illustrate a key motivation for youth who joyride.[13] “Edgework” is when people behave in a way they know is risky but engage in it anyway. This concept can help understanding of the risk youth are undertaking when they joyride. As sociologist Lyng states, “people value risk taking because it is the only means they have for achieving self-determination and authenticity.”[14] As stated above, the majority of youth involved in joyriding come from single parent households, have not had success at school or at work, and have few opportunities to engage in exciting activities that do not involve law breaking. Researchers conclude that youth gain empowerment by stealing cars, where they are in control and free themselves from daily routines and constraints.[15] In fact, interviews with youth involved in auto theft show that one motivation is the power, status, recognition, and masculinity of it.


It’s an addictive activity — The similarity that the repeated car theft and joyriding has to addiction is another consideration for why kids engage in this behavior. Many of the responses in interviews about why youth steal cars echo characteristics of addiction. As with drug and alcohol use, one of the main motivations for joyriding seems to be mood-modification. One youth who stole cars said, for example “you get a buzz out of drugs, yeah, well {stealing cars] is 10 times better than that.”[16] Other studies noted that stealing cars helped kids transcend the realities of their lives. Characteristics of addiction include craving, developing a tolerance that requires more dangerous theft, faster or bigger cars, withdrawal, relapse. In interviews with youth who steal cars, about three-quarters thought it could be addictive and about half felt that they were personally addicted. The proof that they gave was that they “couldn’t stop doing it” and felt out of control, and the thrill or high they experienced while doing it.[17] The consideration of car theft as an addiction for a subset of the youth doing it can frame interventions to incorporate harm reduction approaches and potentially use other addiction theories.


It’s a way to create social ties with peers — The role of a peer group is also very important. The peer group provides the catalyst for introduction and continuation of joyriding. A peer group provides a structure for learning skills of car theft, for becoming a leader in a joyriding crew, and it provides an identity for individuals who may lack a close family or school identity.[18] In most studies, all of the respondents had friends who stole cars and many reported peer pressure and status gains for engaging in car theft and joyriding.[19]


It aligns with a ‘car culture’ — Another consideration is that many kids who steal cars are, not surprisingly, very interested in cars and the culture of cars. One study found that many youth who have stolen cars stated that their first driving and working on cars occurred with their father or another significant male in their family circle at an early age.[20] In our conversations with an intervention that offers youth the opportunity to learn auto bodywork instead of punishment (Synergy, see below), the staff said, “Our tradespeople who are training the kids love cars and can talk cars all day. Young people who are involved in the justice system for stealing cars love cars and can talk about them all day. It’s a good fit.”[21]


Arrest and detention are not effective deterrents


Again, several themes emerged across all studies. Kids who steal cars do not consider auto theft to be a serious crime, they believe their chance of being caught is small and even if they are caught, arrested, and detained, they are not deterred. Researchers have even identified that being sent to detention could be considered a “rite of passage”. Kids don’t understand that auto theft would ruin their image, their lives, and would have a negative effect on others, or at least do not consider these important deterrents. Youth are not deterred by punishment or the risk of car crashes; they perceive the benefits of auto theft as greater than the obvious costs.[22]


This limits deterrence-based policies. Strategies highlighting the risks of auto theft in terms of how it would diminish a youth’s image and life chances or have a negative impact on others are likely to have a limited impact. Strategies that focus on a youth’s desire to have fun may be more effective, for example providing recreational activities. Other research indicates that their preference would be for car-related activities, and their career aspirations were often related to cars. Authors suggest that broadening prevention services and activities to those who may be at risk but not involved yet, either through school or community-wide prevention strategies.[23]



[1] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice April 2008:187-209.

[2] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[3] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[4] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[5] Kellett S, Gross H. 2007. Addicted to joyriding? An exploration of young offenders accounts of their car crime. Psychology, Crime & Law 12(1):39-59.

[6] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[7] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Apriil 2008:187-209.

[8] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[9] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Apriil 2008:187-209.

[10] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth auto theft: A survey of a general population of Canadian youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Apriil 2008:187-209.

[11] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[12] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[13] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[14] Lyng S. 2005. Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking, ed Stephen Lyng. New York: Taylor.

[15] Anderson J, Linden R. 2014. Why steal cars? A study of young offenders involved in auto theft. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal February 2014:241-60.

[16] Kellett S, Gross H. 2007. Addicted to joyriding? An exploration of young offenders accounts of their car crime. Psychology, Crime & Law 12(1):39-59.

[17] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[18] Dawes G. 2000. The culture of joyriding in Queensland: The offenders perspective. Road Safety Research, Policing & Education Conference, 26-28 November 2000, Brisbane, Queensland.

[19] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[20] Kellett SK. 2000. An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behavior. Department of Human Sciences of Loughborough University. September 2000. Doctoral Thesis.

[21] Crellin T. 2018. Private interview with Kim Gilhuly.

[22] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth Auto Theft: A Survey of a General Population of Canadian Youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice pp. 187-209.

[23] Dhami MK. 2008. Youth Auto Theft: A Survey of a General Population of Canadian Youth. Canadian Journal of
Criminology and Criminal Justice pp. 187-209.