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When 'an epidemic of auto theft' hit British Columbia

In 1996, B.C. had seen a sharp spike in auto thefts in the province.

Auto theft was easy to pull off and plentiful in the province in 1996

Terry Milewski reports on the sharp spike in auto theft in B.C. in 1996. 1:50

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say.

And perhaps that's why the Vancouver police had one of its own stealing a vehicle 23 years ago?

To drive home a point about how bad the auto theft problem had become in British Columbia?

"I'm in your vehicle right now," said Const. Phil Ens, showing journalists how easy it was to use a screwdriver to secure the services of a Dodge Minivan that didn't belong to you.

"I will now take my screwdriver, turn it around and I'll drive your car away," Ens said, as he looked into a television camera for dramatic effect.

To show the media how easy it was to steal a car, Vancouver police Const. Phil Ens demonstrated how a screwdriver could be used to do just that. (The National/CBC Archives)

The CBC's Terry Milewski tried to provide further context to the unorthodox public service announcement.

"The point of his demonstration is that the police and B.C.'s government-run insurance corporation, ICBC, are trying to alert drivers to an epidemic of auto theft," Milewski told viewers on The National on Sept. 11, 1996.

The highest auto theft rate in Canada

Brian Jones of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia told CBC News that number of reported vehicle thefts was up by an estimated 48 per cent over the previous year. (The National/CBC Archives)

Milewski said it was estimated that auto thefts would lead to $90 million in insurance claims in the province that year.

Statistics Canada would later report that B.C. had the highest rate of auto theft among Canadian provinces in 1996.

The ICBC's Brian Jones told CBC that the total number of reported auto thefts had increased sharply over the previous year — with 14,000 reported thefts in the first six months of the year.

"[It] represents about a 48 per cent increase over last year," Jones said.

Thefts 'getting completely out of hand'

Journalists are seen watching Vancouver police Const. Phil Ens demonstrate how an auto thief could use a screwdriver to break into and then steal a vehicle. (The National/CBC Archives)

For the viewers at home, Milewski delved a bit deeper into what that number meant.

"Of course, in B.C., everything is growing pretty fast, but 48 per cent in just one year, that suggests that auto theft is getting completely out of hand here and the police are basically admitting that it is," Milewski said.

And while auto theft was evidently easy to pull off — as shown by the screwdriver-wielding Ens — it was also very lucrative.

"A Mercedes can be sent to Asia in a crate, a Honda can be stripped for parts," said Milewski, listing some of the potential fates of stolen vehicles.

Milewski said many stolen vehicles did end up being recovered. But those that were found also tended to need substantial repairs, averaging around $4,000 at that time.