In the UK, car theft is a big criminal problem, with thousands of cars stolen every week. Much of this car crime is theft by young males in their late adolescence
or early twenties who simply steal the car for one evening and go joyriding for fun. Joyriding typically involves the person stealing the car so that they can drive them at the fastest speeds possible and impress their friends who may be either in the car with them or watching them from afar. Much of the excitement surrounding the activity is that it is risky, illegal and dangerous. For joyriders, such behaviour can result in social costs (e.g., getting arrested, being imprisoned) and/or health
costs (e.g., getting injured, being killed). The fact that joyriding behaviour by those taking part is often something that they engage in repetitively (in spite of the many risks involved) has led some to suggest that the activity may have an addictive potential to a small minority.
The first peer reviewed academic paper published on addiction to joyriding was by Dr Andrew McBride who provided a case study of the fictional character Toad (from Kenneth Grahame’s novel Wind in the Willows). Dr McBride, who at the time was working for the Community Addiction Unit in Cardiff, published an interesting paper in a 2000 issue of the journal Addiction Research, and argued that the adventures of Toad “can be read as an embodiment of late twentieth century ideas of dependence. Toad’s seemingly reckless driving, car theft, related problems, and his friends’ treatment of him are described”. Using various criteria of dependence, McBride argued that Toad fulfilled many of these criteria in relation to his driving and car theft. This included:
• Salience and persistence: “When Toad’s preoccupation is at its height, he neglects all alternative pleasures and persists with his driving despite the catalogue of harmful consequences listed by his friends and a period of imprisonment. Grahame’s description of Toad’s driving clothes suggests he also recognized the importance of ritual to the process of addiction”
• Subjective compulsion: “Toad clearly experiences a strong desire and a sense of compulsion to drive and steal cars”
• Tolerance: “Toad’s first exposure to cars, as a pedestrian casualty of a road traffic accident, is sufficient to leave him in an intoxicated state for days. Latterly his appetite for cars and driving appears to have been temporarily sated only after extreme recklessness and the destruction of the vehicle”
• Loss of control: “Toad is unable to hold back from initiating driving and literally, as well as metaphorically, loses control of the cars that he drives”
• Desire or efforts to control use: “Toad generally contemplates change only under conditions of extreme coercion. A healthy corrective for those who imagine addicts continuously bloodied and bowed”
• Withdrawal symptoms: “Upon forced withdrawal from cars Toad displays hostility and the intriguing amateur theatricals, akin to occupational delirium, complete with marked autonomic changes, followed by depression, despair and anorexia”
• Relapse after abstinence: “In the description of Toad’s car theft I would argue that we have the clearest most elegant account of any relapse in literature: cue exposure, akrasia, lapse, and immediate loss of control”
McBride says that in Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame described Toad’s physiological responses to behavioural addiction long before experts in the addiction field had even thought about the possibility of non-chemical dependencies.
The first published empirical study was a qualitative study comprising interviews of 15 juvenile offenders who were also joyriders (aged 14 to 17 years of age) published in 1997. The research was carried out in Northern Ireland by Dr Rosemary Kilpatrick (Queen’s University Belfast) and published as a chapter in the book ‘Addicted To Crime?’ Kilpatrick concluded that joyriding contained addictive elements. More specifically, it was reported that in relation to the juvenile joyriders interviewed that all 15 of them displayed characteristics of tolerance, salience, and conflict. She also reported that nine of the joyriders in the sample could be described as having four characteristics of addiction (i.e., tolerance, salience, conflict, and relapse), while at least seven of the sample displayed five of the six characteristics (including withdrawal and/or craving).
Arguably the most well known study on ‘joyriding addiction’ was carried out by Dr. Sue Kellett and Dr. Harriet Gross, and published in a 2006 issue of Psychology, Crime and Law. The study comprised semi-structured interviews with 54 joyriders (aged 15 to 21 years of age) all of whom were convicted car thieves. The interviews aimed to examine the “joyriding career’’ by exploring (but not restricted to) (i) the initial involvement in joyriding activities, (ii) regular patterns of behaviour, including excessiveness, (iii) the importance, or salience of the behaviour, (iv) the consequences of joyriding, including negative experiences, and (v) experiences of stopping – or attempts to stop – joyriding.
With regards to addiction, the interviews also looked for signs of salience, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse. The results of the study indicated that all of the ‘dependency criteria’ used by Kellett and Gross occurred within the joyriders’ accounts of their behavior particularly ‘‘persistence despite knowledge and concern about the harmful consequences’’, ‘‘tolerance’’, ‘‘persistent desire and/or unsuccessful attempts to stop’’, “large amounts of time being spent thinking about and/or recovering from the behavior’’
and “loss of control”.
Kellett and Gross also cited examples of ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when not joyriding, the giving up of other important activities so that they could go joyriding instead, and spending more time participating in joyriding than they had originally intended. Overall, the findings appeared to confirm the earlier study by Kilpatrick and suggest that joyriding can be addictive.