DRIVE TAB Xenon headlamps new target of thieves

By Wayne Parry

Associated Press Writer

NEWARK, N.J. -- It was dark, Benjamin Benson was tired after a long day at the office, and he slumped wearily into his car, flicked the switch for the headlights and pulled out into traffic.

"I start driving, and a police officer pulls me over and says, 'Put your lights on!"' the Ramsey lawyer recalled. "I said, 'Officer, they ARE on.' He tells me to pull over into a parking lot. He gets out of his car, I get out of mine, we look at where my lights used to be and both our mouths are gaping open. There's wires hanging out of these two big holes."

Benson's Acura had fallen prey to the latest craze among thieves -- stealing high-intensity xenon headlights from expensive luxury cars.


Dealers, body shops and insurance companies say the thefts are driven by a lust for the moon-blue lights among urban youths, who transplant them to spice up their cars.

"They're retrofitting these into their Hondas and making them into low-riders," said Richard Black, who owns a body shop in Newark.

Theft worst in northeast

While the thefts have been sporadically reported in other parts of the country, the problem is worst in northern New Jersey, New York City and its Westchester County and Connecticut suburbs. Nationwide, 300 to 400 of the lights have been reported stolen over the past year, most of them in the Northeast, according to Acura spokesman Mike Spencer.

About the best explanation anyone can offer for the trend here is that New Jersey, the most densely populated state, has a high concentration of expensive cars in office parks, shopping malls and park-and-ride lots -- a virtual auto parts buffet for thieves.

"It's an epidemic, totally out of control," said Dominick Pardo, another Newark body shop owner. "I mean, it's just crazy how many of these are getting stolen."

In Denville, thieves ripped 20 headlights from cars at an Acura dealership last year. Similar thefts at a Wayne dealership prompted the business to hire an overnight security guard. And more than 50 lights were taken from cars in Fairfield last year, mostly from shopping centers and office parks.

Replacements pricey


The headlights can cost $2,000 to $5,000 to replace, depending on how much body damage the thieves inflict while trying to get to the lights.

"A couple years ago it was airbags. Now it's these headlights," said John Tiene, president of the Insurance Council of New Jersey, an industry group. "Any time a manufacturer adds something new to a car, they become the focus of rings that go out and steal them."

He predicted that instead of raising premiums, the insurance industry will absorb the costs of stolen headlights for a year or two, while pressuring manufacturers to make them harder to steal.

Unlike standard headlights, which use a glowing filament, the new bulbs use high-voltage electricity to charge xenon gas inside a sealed tube, creating an intense bluish light.

Police are hard-pressed to make arrests, even when they see a Honda or other low-end car sporting the super-bright lamps.

"You still have to have probable cause to stop them," said Newark Lt. Derek Glenn. "There's no reason to believe it isn't a part they got legally from a store, and you can't pull them over just on the suspicion it's not."

Insurers are taking their own steps. The Insurance Council makes periodic sweeps of body shops and parts stores, asking to see receipts and invoices for xenon lights on the shelves. A light that had been on a car for just a few hundred miles is often smudged and scratched, Tiene said.

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