Why are cars locking us out?

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

I used a Kia Sorento crossover SUV recently to transport ceramic vases. Just before I would lift each box from the floor inside my home, I would push the unlock button on the Sorento’s key fob and listen for the beep in the driveway to let me know it was unlocked, so I wouldn’t have to pull the keys out of my pocket.

But every time I got to the SUV with my hands full, it had re-locked itself, and I was stuck balancing the delicate cargo in one arm while I unlocked it again.

What kind of world are we telling ourselves we live in, when we have to make a run from our house to our car in 20 seconds to beat the automatic locks? Being forced into that behavior reminds me unnecessarily that the world is a dangerous place.

Then there was the time during holiday season I moved casseroles to a dinner party in an Acura RDX. I had left them in the car while I entered and greeted the party hosts and hung up my large winter parka. The Acura’s key fob was on a large chain of keys, and wouldn’t fit in my pants pocket, so I reached into my coat in the front closet and pressed the key fob to unlock the Acura. Through the front door window I saw the Acura’s parking lights flash, signaling it was unlocked. Then I jogged out to the car in the 18-degree weather to get the casseroles, about 20 seconds away from the house. By the time I got to the car, it had re-locked itself and I had no key.

How is it that new-car buyers are reminded to be afraid of thieves entering their cars every 20 seconds they are left unattended? The insurance industry and law enforcement messages counsel us to always lock our car doors and windows, or we’re just “inviting” a crime.

Since 1990 I’ve owned several convertibles, and now my son does, too. We don’t lock them simply because if anyone really wants to get inside, a knife will do it easily. A convertible top is much more expensive to replace than anything else in the car. In 27 years we’ve only lost one box of YuGiOh cards to theft.

What my son and I have gained is a sense of freedom from locks and keys. Every time we open the door it’s a reminder of how good people are, how safe we are in our communities, and how good it feels to offer trust and have trust returned.

On a recent trip to Hawaii’s rural “Big Island,” one local man told us he has never locked his home’s doors in 23 years; the rental car we picked up in Hilo was left for us unattended with its key under the floor mat; we used it for a week and returned it that way and never even met anyone at the rental company.

This type of lifestyle was a big part of the stress reduction we experienced on the Big Island. Locals we spoke to cannot remember there ever being a police chase on this island — there’s no place to hide. Living like this would get you laughed at in New York or any insurance sales office.

Yet we wonder about the cost of living with fear of theft: A Gallup survey in 2015 found Americans are far more worried about our credit cards being stolen than someone breaking into our cars. Four in 10 of us are worried about our cars and homes being broken into, yet just 1 in 434 people experience an auto break-in, and that fraction is decreasing, according to the FBI. We are about 200 times more worried about car theft than we need to be.

Technology is not always the answer, but it is credited with reduced auto theft rates. Alarm use boomed in the 1970s when theft-prone expensive audio systems were introduced. “Smart” keys with radio frequency identification chips were introduced in 1997 on the Ford Mustang, and the dramatic drop in thefts of the pony cars prompted most manufacturers to follow the trend, although dedicated thieves then resorted to more personally dangerous carjacking at gunpoint to steal cars. Auto theft in the U.S. peaked in 1991 at 650 per 100,000 inhabitants, but is now down to about one-third of that, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Anti-theft technology continues to improve, with sensors to detect when a vehicle is tilted by a tow truck, as well as GPS tracking and alerts. Yet, there is no data that car alarms have contributed much to lower auto thefts.

Maybe our desire for alarms is instinctive: Psychologists notice that humans will work much harder to keep from losing $100 they already have than they will work to make a gain of $100, a survival tactic that’s been around for eons.

But when a car automatically locks me out of it, it reveals to me that excessive use of technology is causing needless anxiety.