Burning Cars for Fun

A year ago, Road Rules wrote about the new French problem of burning cars.  The topic was unusual, perhaps more a matter of cultural and sociological import than road safety. But the high number of vehicles burned, the effects on French car insurance, the reasons for such wide-spread destructive behavior, and the question of suppressing such news-worthy material in order to minimize copy-cat-ism, tended more towards relevancy.

And, after all, road safety aims to minimize the inherent risk posed by vehicles in motion on the roads with the vast majority of drivers at least trying not to cause harm.  This challenge is persistent and tough enough.  So what are we to make of willful deployment of vehicles as incendiary devices and take-aim projectiles, of active willingness to cause harm using a motor vehicle as ammunition?

Of course we do know what to make of this.  Wilfully causing harm is criminal behaviour.  And in some cities around the world criminals have been blowing up cars for decades.  But in traditionally peaceful, law-and-order places, such developments may be more frequent and have already changed many aspects of modern life.  Canada has not been untouched.  And such a question isn’t quite as rhetorical as it might sound. Indeed, at the time of writing, Sweden is struggling with it following the simultaneous torching on the night of Monday August 13th of more than 100 cars in four of its major cities — Stockholm, Malmo, Gothenburg, and Uppsala, by gangs acting in concert in their respective cities.

Witnesses described all culprits in the attacks as wearing dark clothing and hoods.  Gothenburg police spokesperson Ulla Brehm could not confirm that the series of identical car fires had been orchestrated via social media but said that ‘the fact that it has been co-ordinated in so many places indicates it’.  Ms. Brehm also said Gothenburg police had identified some of the culprits and arrested two people.  During a radio interview the following morning, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was much less matter-of-fact: “I’m furious, for real. My question to these people is ‘what the ____ are you doing?’” he reportedly said.

Reports say systematically setting cars on fire has become associated with gang violence in suburbs in Sweden’s major cities.  According to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency’s statistics, in 2017, 1,457 cars were ‘deliberately’ set on fire across Sweden, slightly down from the 1,641 in 2016. Swedish reports of these events have also recalled statements made by US President Donald Trump in February 2017 linking crime in Sweden to its generous open-door immigration policies.  They say rioters threw stones at police, burned cars and looted shops after the police had arrested a suspected drug dealer in Rinkeby, a northern Stockholm suburb where many people new to Sweden live.

Hooliganism is a tempting non-explanation for what has happened here: an accurate label but not much help.  Theories on the psychology of crowds are also perhaps less than applicable.  Videos of the ‘culprits’ show small numbers of individuals appearing to be acting on their own initiative, and targeting cars at random. The joy of crazy?