Sounds of silence

A little birdie told me the age of the car alarm is over.

In the 1990s my life’s background noise was car alarms. They were especially a problem at the car wash next door. They were also part of general urban noise.

My Escort had an alarm only because I saved more on insurance than the alarm cost. Like most alarms it would go off when the car sat unmolested in a safe parking lot. It did nothing to stop a thief on a city street in Cambridge. I had carelessly left some loose change visible and somebody smashed a window to take it.

I heard stories of people who parked the car in the evening and returned to fined a smashed wreck. The alarm had been going off all night and residents took matters into their own hands.

Even activating and deactivating my car alarm would make a noise unless I pressed an extra button each time to silence it. Probably designed by the same people who decided microwave ovens need to chirp. It was a loud decade.

Walking less than a mile from my old apartment this week I realized the sound of car alarms had vanished years ago. It was literally a little bird who told me.

The Northern Mockingbird is one of the few native birds found in urban areas. As the name suggests, it is a mimic that adapts songs from the environment. Mockingbirds always drew a smile when they sang a song they had learned hanging out in the city. It was very recognizable. A series of one tone, then a series of another, and so on in a cycle. A great mimic of a car alarm. All the lady mockingbirds must have said to themselves, “wow, he has a car, I want to lay his eggs.” I’d hear it in the city. I’d hear it in a wildlife refuge. Birds loved that song.

The song I heard recently was a distant cousin of a car alarm sung by a mockingbird who hadn’t heard one. He was imitating his father imitating his father whose great grandfather learned it from a real car.

The days of alarm noise are over, and the days of car theft and theft from cars are pretty much over. Loose valuables vanish from unlocked cars. A locked car is mostly safe. A screwdriver isn’t good enough for a spontaneous joyride. Car radios aren’t worth stealing when they are integrated into the rest of the electronics. Even my 15 year old car has a unified navigation-control-entertainment system. More parts have traceable serial numbers, reducing their black market resale value. Many cars have builtin tracking devices disguised as roadside assistance systems.

Your car may recognize your presence by the key remote and turn the alarm off when you approach. I hate that feature in my friend’s Prius. I can’t check to see if the door is locked because it automatically unlocks the door if I touch the handle. But it’s undeniably convenient for the car-as-an-appliance majority.

And for more technically oriented thieves.

Car security has historically been about keeping honest people honest. It was not hard to jimmy a lock. One car key could fit many locks. Car makers hoped you wouldn’t accidentally park near a twin of your car that happened to share a key pattern.

Now the electronic keys are unique, but that only means you can’t accidentally drive off with somebody else’s car. I’ve read plenty of articles about ways to attack various computerized car security systems. Maybe a key can be cloned, maybe the cryptography is weak, and maybe all that’s needed is a signal booster to make it seem like the key 40 feet away by your front door is 4 feet away in your driveway. A thief backed by technology can still drive off with many new cars.

Thankfully, he won’t set off the car alarm.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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