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Crime-ridden liberal cities have a new favorite scapegoat: Automakers

Cities suing Kia and Hyundai over a rise in vehicle thefts include Chicago, New York City, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Baltimore, Seattle, San Diego and St. Louis.

Published: August 28, 2023 4:01am

Chicago is the latest major city to sue Hyundai and Kia for failing to equip their U.S. cars for more than a decade with anti-theft technology, which was exposed on social media last year and made the vehicles a target for criminals.

"Unlike the movies, hot-wiring vehicles is far harder than it appears—unless that vehicle was manufactured by Hyundai or Kia," the lawsuit filed Thursday by the city of Chicago states.

Other cities have already filed lawsuits against Kia and Hyundai over a rise in vehicle thefts, including New York City, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Baltimore, Seattle, San Diego and St. Louis, as well as Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis, Tenn.

A federal judge earlier this month declined to approve a $200 million class-action lawsuit settlement from the automobile manufacturers to cover about 9 million vehicles with model years ranging from 2011-2022, according to The Associated Press

The vehicles produced during that time period do not feature push-button ignitions and anti-theft devices, which allows thieves to easily steal the cars with just a screwdriver and a USB cord. Some major automobile insurers have even refused to issue policies in some areas for owners of Hyundai and Kia models that they deem too easy to steal.

When rejecting the $200 million settlement, U.S. District Judge James Selna said the deal  failed to provide "fair and adequate" relief to automobile owners. The settlement’s rejection came after the attorneys general of six states and the District of Columbia urged the judge to require the automobile manufacturers to install anti-theft technology in all theft-prone vehicles, possibly in combination with a buyback program.

Both Kia and Hyundai are already offering to fix the theft-prone models to make them safer through software updates and steering wheel locks.

In addition to the city-led lawsuits, Democratic attorneys general from 17 states and D.C. sent a letter earlier this year to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, urging the agency to recall the theft-prone Kia and Hyundai vehicles.

More than 1 million vehicles were stolen in 2022, up 7% from the previous year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Illinois saw the largest percent increase in vehicle thefts at 35%, while Washington came in second with a 31% increase.

Chicago saw a larger rise in vehicle thefts than any other U.S. city with a 55% increase,  according to the lawsuit filed last week. Despite being only about 7% of vehicles in Chicago, Hyundais and Kias made up 41% of the stolen vehicles in 2022. 

"The impact of car theft on Chicago residents can be deeply destabilizing, particularly for low- to middle-income workers who have fewer options for getting to work and taking care of their families," Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, a Democrat, said. "The failure of Kia and Hyundai to install basic auto-theft prevention technology in these models is sheer negligence, and as a result, a citywide and nationwide crime spree around automobile theft has been unfolding right before our eyes."

Hyundai spokesperson Ira Gabriel said his company is "committed to the comprehensive actions we are undertaking to assist customers and communities affected by the persistent theft of certain vehicles," The Chicago Tribune reported.

Kia spokesperson James Bell dismissed the municipal lawsuits as being "without merit."

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined that this issue does not constitute a safety defect or noncompliance with applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, including ... theft protection measures,” he said.

Engine immobilizers were made standard on all Hyundai and Kia vehicles as of November 2021, but the issue affecting older models still on the road is likely to remain for some time. 

Crime overall has risen in major U.S. cities since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The homicide rate was 24% higher during the first half of 2023 than during the same time period of 2019, according to an analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice think tank. Meanwhile, motor vehicle thefts rose 104% during the first half of this year compared to the same time in 2019.

At the same time, the number of law enforcement officers is falling across the nation. The latest data available from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that in May 2022, just under 660,000 people were employed as police officers. Meanwhile, before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 670,000 police officers were employed across the U.S.

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