"Hi, Jack"

27 February 2013

Highway robbery has been a problem for hundreds of years. But in 2013 we have the best ever technology to combat it. However, are we doing our best to beat the bad guys? Geoff Dossetter investigates.

'Hi Jack'. Supposedly, this was the manner in which a member of one gang would approach the driver of a rival gang's bootlegging truck during the period of US prohibition in the 1920s. With a smile and a disarming ‘Hi, Jack!’ he would then stick the muzzle of a gun in the face of the poor unfortunate, and relieve him of both his truck and its alcoholic cargo.

That may be apocryphal, but it has a certain ring about it that just could be the authentic derivation of the now familiar ‘hijack’, which we all understand. For certain, hijacking remains on the list of potential crimes directed against lorries, their drivers and their loads. And, equally certain is the fact that alcohol remains one of the primary targets for the modern day highwaymen. This alongside tobacco, computers, electronics, vehicle parts, construction plant and metals through to household goods like food and drink, clothes and shoes, and even toiletries and cosmetics. High value and easily disposable goods are the likeliest to attract attention.

And fuel, petrol and diesel, constitutes a target. Perhaps this is not surprising since the dramatic increase in the world price of oil and the enormous tax levels we pay in the UK. There is plenty of fuel tank pilferage going on. However, for tanker loads full of these materials, together with other hazardous loads, the potential motive is not necessarily theft but, in the post 9/11 era, terrorist activity. The idea of a stolen 40,000 litre tanker full of highly inflammable and explosive material being used as some sort of tool in a ram-raid piece of terrorism certainly makes my blood run cold.

Not surprising then, that those involved in the transport of high value or dangerous loads should be taking great care in protecting themselves. And they are. But, sadly, and to my mind rather confusingly, the extent to which truck and associated crime exists, is itself a bit of a mystery.

Up until about a year ago some statistics were put together by an organisation called TruckPol.

TruckPol first came into being in 2003 and in 2007 became part of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service. It attempted to assemble and distribute details of the extent and type of truck crimes, the location of the offences, the commodities involved and various other details. It did this by the collection of returns from a number, but not all, of UK police forces. It wasn’t comprehensive, but it was something.

TruckPol received very limited support from ACPO itself, enjoyed some, but insufficient, sponsorship from industry and, not surprisingly, in 2012 ground to a halt. A rather sad notice now on its website says ‘After operating successfully since 2007, TruckPol, the crime statistics, crime information and crime trend monitoring office is shut down. Our website and call desk closed, 31 March 2012’. Before its demise TruckPol published a number of annual reports which suggested that we were beginning to see a welcome fall in crimes against trucks, both thefts of the vehicles themselves and of their loads. But is it continuing? Or is it reversing and increasing? Nobody knows. The available statistics on vehicle crime are now contained in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which is published by the Office of National Statistics. The latest of their reports, which covers the period up until the end of June 2012, seems to carry some good news. It says that vehicle related theft decreased by eight per cent during the previous year, that it has actually reduced by 31 per cent since 2007, and by a staggering 54 per cent since 2002. This is all good news. But does it include truck crime? Nobody seems to know! And are these improvements the consequence of a dramatic change in social behaviour? Or are they down to the fitment of improved anti-theft and tracking devices at original manufacture or later rectification? Again, nobody seems to know. But perhaps we can speculate that it is not down to social behaviour!

Every year the cost of truck crime must run into hundreds of millions of pounds of hard earned cash, not to mention the consequential impacts of lost goods, vehicle downtime, customer frustration and the psychological impact on victims of theft and violence. There is a sensible adage from the business gurus which says that ‘what you can’t measure you can’t manage’. That sounds right to me and it certainly applies to truck security. I find it absolutely astonishing that our police forces, the Home Office and government ministers seem to accept the plain fact that we do not know the current extent of truck crime. It’s crazy.

Meantime, prudent and sensible transport managers and drivers, carrying high value and sensitive loads, are doing what they can to protect themselves. They maintain confidential information, they change their routes, their time schedules and their parking arrangements; they install sophisticated locking equipment; they employ the ever more versatile and economic systems of CCTV now available to monitor vehicles, premises and criminals. But, overall, is it working? Nobody knows.

In a way this is symbolic of the inadequate respect for logistics that I am always complaining about. There is simply not enough care or concern for what is going on, assuming that it is going on, because without the statistics or the record keeping required to compile them, we do not know. In 2013 we are still in recession and need to watch the pennies. But, like so many things, spending money is sometimes a viable means of saving money.

And so it is with truck crime. The more we know about its extent, its nature, and its performance, then the more we can do to stop the bad guys. A radical change in social behaviour is probably too much to ask for. In the meantime we must combat the villains by our ability to protect ourselves with superior skills and knowledge. Measuring the problem can only make us smarter.