Alerted by a neighbour, Silviya Raykova choked back tears as she saw the void where the window of her BMW used to be.
But worse was to come when she peered inside — shattered glass covered the driver’s seat and there was a space where the steering wheel should have been.
A quick check of CCTV cameras mounted to the 29-year-old’s house revealed what had happened, the footage showing two hooded men smashing their way into the car in the early hours of the morning.
Incredibly, it then took them just 30 seconds to unbolt the steering wheel and flee, even the sound of the alarm failing to deter them from their criminal task.
The brazen theft meant that Mrs Raykova and her husband were left without the use of the car for several weeks while repairs were carried out.
On top of that came the £350 needed to cover the excess and the news that their insurance premiums would double.
‘It was a complete shock,’ said the married mother-of-two from Chatham, Kent.
‘My first thought was ‘how am I going to drive the kids to nursery’ and then ‘how am I supposed to go to work?
’I felt so many emotions. The first was anger. But I also felt very stressed. We have cameras and they were still not afraid of them. I felt very insecure. I couldn’t stop crying to be honest.’
Those sentiments will doubtless ring a bell not just with a number of her neighbours — on the same night a number of other cars were similarly targeted — but with motorists the length and breadth of Britain.
From London to Manchester, Essex to Teeside, motorists are falling victim to a new type of car theft — one in which the vehicle is left behind, but its steering wheel stolen.
From London to Manchester, Essex to Teeside, motorists are falling victim to a new type of car theft — one in which the vehicle is left behind, but its steering wheel stolen. Experts believe that while some of these steering wheels are sold on as a complete unit, most are taken for the airbags which they contain. Pictured: An airbag deploying during a crash test
HOW DO AIRBAGS WORK?
Airbags are designed to give extra protection to someone wearing a seatbelt in a car crash.
During a collision, they inflate in just 25 milliseconds.
Though we mostly think of airbags in steering wheels, it’s now not unusual to have six — three each for the driver and front-seat passenger.
One is found in the steering wheel or dashboard to protect the head and chest in a frontal crash.
An airbag in the door or side of the seat protects the chest, stomach and pelvis in a side impact, while a third in the edge of the roof over the doors protects the head.
An airbag is made up of three parts: an impact sensor, an inflation module and the bag itself.
When an airbag goes off, a chemical reaction will produce gas to fill the bag.
After the initial impact, the bag will immediately deflate.
A study of collisions between 1985 and 1993 found that airbags reduced fatalities by 24 per cent in frontal crashes.
However, as airbags are designed with adults in mind, it is safer for children to sit in the back — and it is illegal to use a rear-facing child seat on a passenger seat equipped with an active frontal airbag, as the impact could prove fatal.
Some cars have a switch that allows drivers to turn off their passenger airbag — located in the glovebox or underneath or to the side of the dashboard — when a child seat is fitted.
Experts believe that while some of these steering wheels are sold on as a complete unit, most are taken for the airbags which they contain.
Due to global factory closures during the pandemic, there is a shortage of supplies, pushing up their value on the black market.
Removed from vehicles, thieves sell airbags on to unscrupulous garages who then use them for repairs.
Authorised dealerships can charge up to £1,000 to replace an activated or faulty airbag.
But a stolen airbag changes hands for as little as £200, with the garage charging a customer a few hundred pounds on top to fit.
According to car insurance companies, recent years have seen a spike in this sort of crime, with claims increasing by almost 70 per cent in 2021 alone.
While there are no figures nationally regarding the number of airbag thefts in the UK, in America, the National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates 50,000 airbags with a value of £37million are stolen annually.
In a high-end car, replacing a stolen steering wheel and repairing any damage can cost up to £3,000.
A thief responsible for a spree of these thefts was found to have caused more than £500,000 of damage and loss to the cars he targeted.
While motorists who fall victim to this type of crime are left to deal with the inconvenience and cost of having their vehicle repaired, others are also put at untold risk.
The AA, Britain’s biggest motoring organisation, has warned that some airbags can be taken without owners being aware of it, while stolen ones that are subsequently fitted may not work when needed.
‘Theft of car parts has been fairly lucrative for criminals for decades,’ said Edmund King, the AA’s president.
‘Airbag theft is in many ways the most serious as it can be like a silent assassin. In some cases the driver doesn’t know about the theft until it is too late and the car has crashed without airbag deployment. Removing an airbag is not only a serious criminal offence but puts the life of the driver on the line.’
Like fashion, car crime changes with the decades. Back in the 1980s, motorists returning to a car with a broken window might expect to find their stereo stolen.
The following decade, it was alloy wheels that most often went missing. In more recent years, thieves have concentrated their efforts on the theft of catalytic converters.
Located beneath the vehicle, they are attached to the car’s exhaust system and contain valuable metals that help turn gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides into safer emissions.
Each year some 10,000 converters are stolen — at a cost to motorists of £10million.
But the shift to airbags, with all the implications that has for safety, is now prompting concern for police forces across the country.
The thieves targeting the cars appear to be organised, targeting multiple cars in a single night. CCTV footage has also revealed that they often go equipped with power tools, enabling them to remove the fixings that attach steering wheels within a matter of seconds.
Even if the car alarm is activated, they can then make their getaway before anyone has a chance to react.
These tactics were used in January of this year when Mrs Raykova’s six-year-old grey BMW 5 Series was broken into outside her home in Chatham.
The shop worker uses the family car to drop her children, aged two and four, off at nursery and to go to work.
Although the alarm on the car was activated during the break in, it did not wake her. Indeed, the first thing she knew about it was when a neighbour knocked on her door early the next morning to tell her the window of the car was broken.
Each year some 10,000 converters are stolen — at a cost to motorists of £10million. But the shift to airbags, with all the implications that has for safety, is now prompting concern for police forces across the country (stock image)
‘My husband, who is a courier driver, was making coffee, and I told him,’ she said. ‘We went outside and saw the whole steering wheel was missing.’
The police were called and told the couple that a number of other cars had also been targeted, among which were a number of other BMWs.
Daniel Farley, 27, had the steering wheel of his BMW 3 Series taken on the same night.
CCTV footage shows the suspects removing the wheel within a minute. ‘It is just shocking really,’ he said.
‘I went to get in my car and there was no steering wheel.
‘I cannot even get to work. It is concerning that it can be done in such a short amount of time.’
Only two miles down the road, Beth Vant’s BMW 1 Series was targeted in the same way.
The 22-year-old said: ‘I woke up and did not notice it outside but when I did I just burst into tears. I could not believe it. It is just a shock.’ Miss Vant, who works for South East Water, said she had only had her car for six months and was told three others in her road were also broken in to on the same night.
Soon after, Kent Police announced they had arrested a 28-year-old man who had then been released on police bail. Three months later he still remains on bail, ‘pending further enquiries’.
At around the same time, a number of cars were also targeted in the Basildon area of Essex. These followed other incidents in Manchester and Teesside.
While cars are often broken into, there have also been instances where cars left with doors or windows open have had their airbags carefully removed from the steering wheel, leaving little sign of what has been taken.
This has resulted in people being unaware that their airbag has been stolen until they have been involved in a crash. And it is not just cars.
Last year, a number of Vauxhall Vivaro vans were targeted in North Yorkshire, all having their airbags taken.
While no national data on the scale of these thefts is available, figures from insurance company Admiral give a snapshot of a growing problem.
Even if the car alarm is activated, they can then make their getaway before anyone has a chance to react (An airbag theft pictured)
It has revealed that claims for steering wheel and airbag thefts increased by 68 per cent year-on-year from 2020 to 2021 with the numbers rising particularly sharply following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘The rise in thefts has been higher in the past couple of years as the factories that produce airbags have been impacted by the pandemic, either shutting down permanently or struggling to keep up with demand once they reopen,’ says Lorna Connelly, Admiral’s Head of Claims.
‘This has resulted in criminals taking advantage of the supply chain issue. Once the steering wheel has been stolen, the airbag is removed and sold onto unscrupulous garages who fit them to cars for less than dealerships would charge. The garage might buy the stolen airbag for between £200 and £500 before charging a customer a few hundred pounds more.
‘This would still be cheaper than the driver going to an authorised dealership, where it costs up to £1,000 to replace an activated or faulty airbag.’
According to Admiral’s data, the most commonly targeted cars are BMWs. But most popular makes, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover have been hit.
BMW has said that ‘where vehicles are locked and secured appropriately, BMW customers should feel reassured that their car is no more vulnerable to this kind of criminal theft than any other brand’.
Ms Connelly added: ‘Airbag theft just gives thieves a quick way to make some money by selling the airbag on to garages, but it’s the honest motorist affected.’
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said there was concern that airbags could be faulty once removed by thieves and then re-fitted by less experienced mechanics who are more interested in making a fast buck.
‘Second-hand airbags would normally void warranties but, more importantly, pose a major safety risk to drivers,’ he said.
‘As non-approved parts, there is no guarantee they will deploy correctly in an accident. Drivers should always have maintenance work conducted by authorised, reputable repairers, who only ever use approved parts sourced from specialist suppliers.’
The criminal supply chain of airbags has been highlighted by a number of recent court cases.
Six months ago, a scrapyard boss from Pontefract, West Yorks, was jailed after a police raid found car parts including airbags and steering wheels from cars including a Ford Focus, BMWs and a Porsche.
In a separate police investigation, airbags stolen from cars across the country by an organised crime gang were found on sale on the internet.
Another court case led to Lithuanian national Ernestas Lukosevicius being jailed for four years after he was recruited by a gang to steal valuable car parts.
Over just two months in 2018, he and another man stole steering wheels from 70 high-value BMW, Audi and Mercedes vehicles parked on driveways at homes across North Kent late at night.
Already, there are reports that thieves are turning their attention to electric cars, stealing the cables required to charge them (stock image)
The 27- year-old used expanding foam and sticky tape to muffle car alarms and cover up any lights which might flash. In a bid to foil the criminals, police are advising motorists to park cars in well-lit areas or inside a garage where possible and to never buy an airbag online.
They also suggest using a good quality steering lock on the steering wheel as an added deterrent — a gadget that many older motorists will imagine they long ago saw the last of.
Of course, whether airbag theft proves to be just a passing fad, only time will tell.
Already, there are reports that thieves are turning their attention to electric cars, stealing the cables required to charge them.
They then either sell the copper they contain for scrap or offload them online for up to £200 a go.
Experts are advising electric vehicle owners to tether their chargers through the wheel spokes of the car using a heavy-duty chain and padlock.
Yet another old-fashioned solution to a very modern crime.