The Winnipeg police force's stolen-auto unit say the city is well on its way to ditching its reputation as the auto-theft capital of Canada.

Winnipeg has, statistically, been the country's car-theft capital for several years, and the issue has come to the forefront of public attention over the last year after a series of cases involving stolen vehicles injuring or killing people.

But the situation is improving, police say. August saw fewer thefts and attempted thefts than any month in the last eight years — something officers in the stolen-auto unit consider a massive feat, since historically auto thieves are most active in August.

It was a good month for arrests, as well — the stolen-auto unit made 56 arrests in August, breaking its record for monthly arrests.

Theft down 40%

Brian Smiley, spokesman for Manitoba Public Insurance —- the Crown insurer that pays for the losses and damages caused by auto thieves in  Manitoba — said vehicle theft in Winnipeg has declined by 40 per cent in the first eight months of 2008.

"That's certainly significant. It's about 1,600 less vehicles that have been stolen," he said.

"It's certainly good news for people who worry about public safety, and it's good news for vehicle owners."

Smiley credited two major efforts by MPI, police and the provincial government for the steep decline in theft.

"With the combination of the WATSS program — that's the Winnipeg auto theft suppression strategy — combined with the immobilizer program, we're seeing auto theft dropping dramatically," he said.

The WATSS program monitors youth considered at risk of stealing vehicles. Youth considered at the highest risk of reoffending can be contacted by justice officials as often as every three hours to ensure they're not out stealing cars. They can also be outfitted with GPS tracking devices as part of a one-year pilot project.

Since June 2007, the province has required the owners of hundreds of models of vehicles MPI considers to be most at risk of theft to install electronic ignition immobilizers if they live in Winnipeg or commute to the city. Without an immobilizer, the vehicles are denied insurance.

Police say Winnipeg is on target to have as many as 5,000 fewer thefts and attempts in 2008, compared with last year.

More than 12,000 vehicles were reported stolen in Winnipeg in 2007, a rate of 1,878 per 100,000. The national rate for the crime in 2007, by comparison, was 443 per 100,000.