January 19th, 2005


Safety Dance

Last night I was among the last to leave the office; that is, I scrambled to get my things together and leave before the last person capable of setting the alarm left the building. Another girl was doing the same, a newish employee whose name I don't even know yet. As we left the building together, she said "Is it safe walking here at this time?"

Slightly odd phrasing aside, I wasn't at all sure I knew what she meant. "Safe in what way?" I ask, seeking clarification. She looks at me blankly. "I mean, safe from what?" More blank looks, before she repeats "Is it safe?" and I really don't know what to say.

The site where we work is extremely dark. The cycle path I take to get home is dark, poorly-surfaced in places, and bounded by woodland and scrubby bushes. Most of the nearby buildings are university departments (though there may be some student accommodation around there as well) and are more or less deserted after 5:30pm. Is it safe? I have no idea. I don't feel unsafe; I cycle with a light on the front handlebars and a reflective jacket, and it's about 2 minutes' cycle to the main road. If I walked (as I have done) I'd carry a torch and probably still wear the reflective jacket.

My main worry is that I'll be run over by an unlit cyclist. That would hurt, but would be unlikely to be fatal. The other (less likely) worry is that I'll fall off my bike or trip over an unseen obstacle in the dark, break an ankle or wrist or leg or something, and be unable to get back to a building -- but I've got a mobile phone, and nobody ever died of a broken ankle, and even if for some reason the phone didn't work I would probably be able to drag myself to one of the nearby buildings with the sort of relatively minor injury I'd be likely to get from just falling over.

There are advantages to this dark and treacherous route, however. It makes my journey home considerably shorter, and does so without introducing the need to negotiate busy roads or junctions. It also allows me to cycle past the Co-op on the way home if I need to. These are useful things. Alternative ways of getting home will carry their own disadvantages: driving is more expensive, involves more damage to the environment, takes longer than cycling (though longer in the dry, which is sometimes an advantage) and is probably just as hazardous (though in this scenario there's more danger of me running over the unlit cyclists than vice versa). Walking has most of the disadvantages of cycling and takes three times as long. And so on, and so forth.

I have, in short, done a personal risk assessment and weighing up of the pros and cons which leads me to the conclusion that cycling that route is the best fit for the factors that matter to me. I can't do this for other people.

One worry is perhaps conspicuous by its absence, however; I am not worried that the Bad Man is hiding in every bush, waiting to leap out at me and do unspeakable things to my person or my property. Should I be? Or rather, should I be more worried about that on a dark bit of university land (which isn't even on the maps) than on a London side-street?

This morning, chatting to another colleague over coffee, the conversation turned again to dark cyclepaths (it's one of our favourite gripes); "It does make me scared, you know, especially after that poor student," she said. My turn to look blank now, before guessing what she was talking about. "You mean Sally Geeson?" "Yes, yes, that poor student, so horribly murdered." I made appropriate noises, but I was confused.

Sally Geeson, as far as I could tell from the patchy accounts in the news, was abducted when she got into a car which she believed was a taxi. This was in the centre of town, on New Year's Eve. Her body was found several days later. (Her murderer, once suspected, committed suicide by setting fire to himself and jumping from a high window.) The only way I can see that her dreadful story has any relevance to how scared one might be to cycle home from work at night is that it reminds us that there exist people in the world who will do deliberate and fatal harm to other people. Am I unusual in being consciously aware of that fact already?

As for the specifics of our workplace, I have heard no recent reports of any crimes taking place on this patch of land, and I certainly have no statistics on what proportion of crimes take place here as compared to elsewhere, even elsewhere in Cambridge. Some places may be safer than others, but nowhere is 100% safe: if people can get there, crime can take place there, for any value of "there" and most values of "crime". And if you can't get there, does it matter if it's safe or not? What if a poisonous tree explodes in a disused quad? There are sensible measures I can take to increase my own safety, but as far as I'm concerned hiding in my house (or workplace) until it gets light isn't one of them.