IN widely scattered incidents, the innocent routines of everyday life - going shopping, going to work, driving children to day-care centers - have been suddenly and sometimes tragically interrupted by carjackers as they attempt to seize an automobile from its occupants.
In 1992, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recorded more than 28,000 carjackings in the United States, an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year.
Now, in an encouraging response, a variety of federal, state, and local initiatives could help to reduce those numbers.
Several states, among them Maryland and New Jersey, have recently made carjacking a separate criminal offense, punishable with prison sentences up to 30 years.
The California State Assembly also has passed a bill that makes the offense punishable by three, four, or six years in state prison and a fine up to $10,000. Additional prison time would be imposed if the crime involves a deadly weapon.
These strict state laws come on the heels of a federal carjacking statute that took effect last October. Congress declared carjacking a felony, although a firearm must be involved for the crime to be a federal offense.
Federal penalties are more severe than state penalties. Last week a man convicted of murdering a young mother in Towson, Md., during a carjacking last fall was sentenced to life in prison.
At the local level, authorities in Jacksonville, Fla., announced this week that a task force assigned to track down fugitives is being broadened to include carjacking. Carjackings in that area have tripled from about three per week last year to nine per week this year. The seven-member task force includes FBI agents and detectives from city and county sheriffs offices. Authorities have also set up a toll-free hotline to enable citizens to report information on carjacking suspects.
The car is the American's home away from home, a citadel of safety hitherto threatened only by the odd behavior of other drivers. Carjacking has changed that, combining the special terror of kidnapping with simple robbery and assault. It is intolerable that idling at a stoplight should turn into a high-risk venture. The severest penalties under the law ought to be enforced to deter carjacking before it becomes one more crime winning the war of the streets.