Electronic tracking system designed to help police curb car theft

Trooper Timothy Hackett, a 16-year veteran of the Massachusetts State Police, swings out of the parking lot in pursuit of a ``stolen'' car. The cruiser and its quarry aren't just any old cars on the road, but are equipped with a hidden electronic device which the developer, William Reagan, claims to be bad news for car thieves. Named for the antithesis of hijack, Lo-Jack is designed to help law-enforcement officers locate and recover stolen vehicles.

When a car is reported stolen, a statewide broadcast network activates a microcomputer which is hidden somewhere in the car. The microcomputer is a ``homing device'' that tells the police where the missing vehicle is located.

In Trooper Hackett's police cruiser, a swiftly moving light on the dashboard-mounted tracker shows the direction of the quarry. As the cruiser moves in, more bars light up on the tracking device. In short order we swing around a corner and behold! -- the missing car.

``The average time to recover a stolen car after the theft is reported is 10 minutes,'' according to Mr. Reagan, president of Lo-Jack Corporation. The Massachusetts State Police has been testing the system for the past year.

Lo-Jack should not be confused with the usual antitheft systems which are designed to delay or discourage the car thief. Lo-Jack takes over only after the car is stolen and reported missing.

Will Lo-Jack play a part in reducing the car-theft problem in the United States? Massachusetts may be the first state in the country to try to find out. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is pushing the state legislature to come up with $300,000 to install the system in 120 police cars around the state.

``It could be the ultimate deterrent against auto theft anytime, anywhere,'' the governor maintains.

On the other hand, the auto-insurance companies aren't so sure. A Liberty Mutual spokesman will only say he's ``waiting to see.''

Even if the state installs the tracking device in scores of police cars and motorists spend the money to install the transmitter, there is always the possibility that the system could be garbled or otherwise disabled by thieves.

The Bay State knows a lot about car theft. Long labeled the ``car-theft capital of the country,'' Massachusett's car-theft loss is pegged at $65 million a year with the nationwide annual loss tagged at $5 billion.

The entrepreneur/inventor of Lo-Jack is a former police commissioner and selectman for the town of Medfield, some 20 miles southwest of Boston.

A Lo-Jack retail unit, to be built by Motorola, is due out in the spring, Reagan says, but it won't be cheap. Installed, he figures the price at $495. The hand-built, police-cruiser-installed trackers cost $2,500 apiece, plus the cost of the communications network.

Besides the car-recovery benefit, ``we're also going to save a lot of police lives,'' declares Reagan. Last year, for example, 43 state troopers in the United States were assaulted in making vehicle stops. The system provides a description of the stolen car, whether it was used in a robbery, and other information, all of which gives the police officer an idea of what he may be up against when he approaches a stolen car. It helps him decide whether or not he should call for a backup.

In addition to being used in a vehicle's electrical system, the microcomputer unit can also be hidden in cargo to help in the recovery of stolen trucks.

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