Top 3 worst places to park your car

Some parking places make your car more prone to break-ins than others — do you know which ones?

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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Last year a car was stolen every 36 seconds, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Car thefts have been on the rise in the last couple of years, with new data showing a 16.5% increase in car thefts in 2021 compared to 2019. Billions of dollars are lost in personal property each year due to car break-ins.

One big prize for thieves is catalytic converters. The NICB reports that in early 2018, it saw an average of 108 catalytic converter thefts per month. By January 2020, that number had jumped to 652 cases per month, and then it soared to 2,347 in December of that year. Catalytic converter thefts continue to rise due to the increasing value of precious metal. 

There are many precautions you can take to protect your car, but let's start with parking. After all, there are far more petty criminals looking for a quick win than there are carjackers, so your car is most at risk when you are not with it. Which places should you avoid parking your car to prevent theft?

#1. Low-traffic areas

empty street


Visibility is a strong deterrent for criminals, for obvious reasons. So, whenever possible, park in high-traffic areas where lots of eyes will be on a potential break-in.

There seems to be a stigma that parking in low-income neighborhoods means your car is a candidate for theft. But, the research shows that break-ins happen across the board — maybe even more so in ritzy neighborhoods where high-dollar goods are more likely to be left in high-risk vehicles (like convertibles or luxury cars).

However, parking in areas with less passers-by can make an intruder more confident that they won’t be caught. If you have a choice between a main street or a secluded side-street, always choose the former. 

#2. Dark or poorly lit areas

dark alley

Above, we discussed how the more people who are around to see your vehicle, the better protected it will be. The same is true for how well they can see your car. Parking in a well-lit, high-traffic area where passersby, either walking or driving, are frequent may serve as a deterrent to someone who might steal from your car.

If you have to leave your car out at night, try to park near a storefront that will still be brightly lit, on a main thoroughfare, under a street light, etc. If your car is too visible it can help deter a criminal from checking it out.

#3. Anywhere overnight

dark street

Statistically, your vehicle is the least safe at night when you are sleeping and the darkness provides the perfect way for would-be burglars to mask themselves while committing their crime against you. Overnight, not only is your car going to be parked in an area with low traffic, but it’s going to be in the dark for an extended period of time. While home break-ins are more likely to occur during the day so the theives have a better chance of avoiding occupants, car break-ins are very much the opposite. One study found that as many as 80% of motor vehicle break-ins occur at night

Leaving your car on the street or in a parking lot or garage overnight will drastically increase the chances of a break-in, so take your ride home with you whenever possible. Park in your garage if possible, or consider investing in a protected parking spot at your apartment. If you have a garage at your residence or job, utilize it to protect your car. According to a national crime survey, 37% of car thefts occur on residential streets in front of the victim's house. In addition, a crime report out of Houston revealed that two of the top three most broken-into parking places were in residential areas: apartment parking lots and driveways.

If parking is a free-for-all, at least look for a well-lit spot. Consider yourself an anti-vampire: When it comes to parking safety, the light is your friend

What's the worst night of the year for car thefts?

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the national holiday with the largest number of motor vehicles thefts is New Years! This is true for 2017, 2018 and 2019 (the last year for which data is available). Presumably theives want to jump start their new year with a little extra cash in their pockets. 

Worst cities to park in?

While the above places to park are more general, we also wanted to include the top 10 cities with the most auto thefts. You should definitely take extra care in choosing where to park if you live in or are visiting an area with high rates of crime. 

Here are the numbers for 2020 as provided by the NICB:

Car thefts per 10,000 people
1. Bakersfield, CA 905.41
2. Yuba City, CA 724.46
3. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 705.8
4. Odessa, TX 664.28
5. San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA 655.2
6. Albuquerque, NM 631.75
7. Pueblo, CO 602.39
8. Billings, MT 564.75
9. St. Joseph, MO-KS 564.64

Bakersfield, California

This central California city had the most motor vehicle thefts in both 2019 and 2020. In 2020, that amounted to 8,161 vehicles stolen.

Tips for avoid car theft and break-ins

Using the above recommendations, you can park your car as safely as possible, but your choice of parking spot is only the beginnning. Here are some other recommendations for keeping your car (and its contents) safe. 

  • Keep things hidden! The main idea here is visibility, and we mean this in two ways. First and foremost, thieves are only separated from your valuables by an easily broken piece of glass. So make sure everything — and we mean everything — is out of sight. None of your valuables should be visible to passers-by. And if your plan is to hide items away in the trunk, do so before you leave home so you’re not seen putting a $1,000 laptop away, prime for the taking the second you walk away. If you have a removable face-plate on your stereo, be sure to take it off before leaving your car—these systems are useless to thieves without the face.
  • Always lock your car, and make sure to look for a good comprehensive insurance plan to cover any break-ins that may occur.
  • Don't let your guard down with keyless entry. While auto tech is continuously ramping up, it has created a sort of double-edged sword when it comes to auto theft, as criminals have found their way around things like keyless entry systems (originally intended to keep those of us with a key misplacement problem inline). Make sure you don't leave your key fob in the vehicle when you walk away. Additionally, if you're home don't store it near doors or windows. You might even want to store it in a container that prevents it emitting digital signals when not in use.   
  • Take other security measures. If you have to park your car in less than safe conditions routinely (such as not having access to a garage), it may be worthwile to invest in other security measures such as a steering wheel clamp or catalytic converter lock. These measures won't necessarily stop all theives, but they may deter some who are just looking for an easy mark. 

Something else to keep in mind is that your auto insurance doesn't cover the contents of your vehicle. That's covered by your home or renters insurance. See our guide to renters insurance and theft here.