Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Previous Previous Next Next
Safety Dance - shadows of echoes of memories of songs — LiveJournal
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.

Tags: , ,

Read 51 | Write
simont From: simont Date: January 19th, 2005 11:36 am (UTC) (Link)
When I lived in the Abbey area there were two sensible routes back to my house from town. One was along the riverside path (unlit except by the moon); the other was along Newmarket Road. The riverside route was much nicer, but after a while I started to worry about muggers hiding in shadows, so I started to prefer the well-lit main road route - and it was there that a pair of muggers spotted me and followed me to a less public location.

If I had it to do over again, I'd go back to the unlit cycle path. Urbanisation doesn't seem to be all it's cracked up to be.
venta From: venta Date: January 19th, 2005 11:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Statistics don't seem to matter - there is a conception that unlit, lonely places are more dangerous. Not because they necessarily are, but because it seems likely that they are.

I decided some time ago that I'd prefer the potential risk of an attack to the definite downside of living my life in a scared, hedged-in manner. I take an awful lot of flak for this from an awful lot of people.

It is likely that one day I will be mugged. Assuming I live to tell the tale, I will report it to the police and then not whinge - I will have had a lot of very nice, moonlit walks down the towpath near my home, and I will have had the freedom to walk across cities by myself, and I think that's fair exchange.
simonb From: simonb Date: January 19th, 2005 11:56 am (UTC) (Link)
No matter what the media likes to say, there are thankfully very few psychopathic individuals out there. Muggers will tend to look for people who appear to be an easy target so if you appear to be confident and aware of your surroundings then you are less likely to be attacked.

As j4 says, in the recent case of Sally Geeson it wasn't a case of someone being attacked because she in a dark area which most people would consider to be risky, but because she got into an unlicensed taxi - a case of someone potentially not checking the car out for taxi markings. Given that it was NYE its likely that alcohol and a desire to get back to where she was staying for the night played a part in this decision.

City centres around pub kicking out time are relatively dangerous thanks to there being a large number of people around who've had quite a bit to drink - apparently 75% of the people going to A&E on a friday night have injuries related to the consumption of alcohol (i.e. too much, injuries from being drunk, fighting, etc).
atreic From: atreic Date: January 19th, 2005 11:48 am (UTC) (Link)
it reminds us that there exist people in the world

For me, things like this (although I must admit it was the stabber who made me twitchy, not the recent murder) reminds me that there exist people in *Cambridge*. Maybe it's just naive that I don't have this in my mind all the time, but I think most people think that Bad Stuff happens Somewhere Else.

But to a first approximation I agree with what you've written. Is the cycle path in question the Storeys Way one?
livredor From: livredor Date: January 19th, 2005 12:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
there exist people in *Cambridge*
Yeah. Rationally it isn't all that relevant, but emotionally one reacts to that sort of news item more when it's local.

I have never been particularly scared of walking places on my own, after dark, where there aren't many people, where lighting is poor etc. I figure the risk of being attacked by a random psycho is low enough to balance against the unlivable inconvenience of needing to be chaperoned everywhere I go. (I can't drive and I can't afford take taxis everywhere either, even if I wanted to.)

I think what really clinched it for me was a teenager who was raped and murdered a couple of years ago when she was walking along Mill Road at 3pm. I mean, if it can happen a busy main road in the middle of the day, any attempt to avoid 'dangerous' situations becomes completely meaningless.
j4 From: j4 Date: January 19th, 2005 12:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, it's the Storeys Way cyclepath.

I suspect most people think that Bad Stuff happens to other people, and by and large, statistically, they're probably right -- more things happen to Other People In General than happen to you, simply because there are more of them. But you'd have to walk around with your eyes closed to fail to notice that violent crimes happen in Cambridge all the time -- it's a reasonable-sized city with a huge transient population (students and tourists) and a fairly large gap between average earnings and cost of living, so it would be more surprising if it didn't have its fair share of Bad Stuff.

I mean, I'm not advocating going around reminding oneself of this all the time, because that way lies total paranoia; but I don't see how it's possible not to be aware of it.
k425 From: k425 Date: January 19th, 2005 12:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
hiding in my house (or workplace) until it gets light isn't one of them

I agree. I used to leave parties in London to walk home miles away in the wee small hours of the morning. Other party-goers would worry but I tended to think then, and still, that most attacks are made at pub and club chucking-out time. I also point(ed) out that I know more people who've been mugged or assaulted in broad daylight while in groups than at night on their own.

I worry more about dangerous road-users than I do about the Bad Man.
ewx From: ewx Date: January 19th, 2005 01:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

The Geeson case got much more publicity than other Cambridge murders that happened while I've been here; there were two near my (at the time) route to work, one of which got maybe one or two non-front-page news.bbc stories as the details played out, the other which I don't know of being reported anywhere at all, I only knew about it because of the police, flowers, etc. (No, the victims weren't photogenic young women, why do you ask.)

As such I'm sure there are others I never heard of in the first place. Still, I think Cambridge is pretty safe.

Even legit taxis can be risky; I have a vague recollection that sesquipedality had rather unnerving experience once.

j4 From: j4 Date: January 19th, 2005 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
(No, the victims weren't photogenic young women, why do you ask.)

Even without the fact that she was young (so there's a kind of understandable sense that more potential life has been lost) and pretty (so there's a totally screwy sense that something more valuable has been lost), the Geeson case had the added sense of something that could have possibly been prevented, in that she'd apparently sent text messages asking for help before her phone had run out of batteries.

This also gives you the potential news angle of "In the end all this modern technology doesn't actually protect us from the Bad Man." Which is not really news, but.

Even legit taxis can be risky

Most murderers have a day job...
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: January 19th, 2005 02:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
FWIW, the one time someone attempted to mug me was in broad daylight in Croydon, and the one time I've been punched by a stranger was on a crowded train. Both times I was in school uniform ...
rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: January 19th, 2005 03:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
before she repeats "Is it safe?" and I really don't know what to say.

The temptation to go into a Marathon Man riff at this point proves that I am a Bad Person, I suppose.

Seriously, I think Jane Jacobs has it nailed, in the comment - I think it's in Death and Life of Great American Cities, that places are safer when there are people around who have legitimate business there, and that therefore if one wants to make one's bits of city safe, encouraging mixed usage such that there are people there who have legitimate reasons to be on the street as much of the time as possible should be part of your strategy. I've certainly never been more aware of how isolated I was in the case of anything bad happening than when walking through the financial district of Washington DC at 11 in the morning on a working day; everyone in their offices, streets like something out of The Omega Man. I can see how this approach fails in the case of that poor young woman being picked up by what she thought was a cab, though.
addedentry From: addedentry Date: January 19th, 2005 04:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not only have you made a personal risk assessment, you've done so purposefully: it's useful to determine whether it's worth buying a hi-vis jacket, it's not useful to determine the chances of an unpredictable, unpreventable Bad Man.

I have a post-bullying fear of young men shouting, so I try to be aware of who's around and where. I often walk down the middle of back streets rather than on the pavement; I often take a longer route along a main road rather than (say) the unlit paths through the local park and churchyard. It's not fear of someone lying in wait but fear of catching someone's attention.

Like the bee sting I've never had, it might be valuable for me to be mugged just to get it in perspective.
j4 From: j4 Date: January 19th, 2005 05:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I haven't done a statistical analysis of whether "hi-vis" jackets prevent bicycle accidents, but as a part-time cag0r I know how hard it is to see black-clad cyclists at night. Also, it doesn't hurt to wear it (apart from the slight sting of paying 20 quid for a shiny binliner with velcro on the front).

I'm not particularly bothered by young men shouting (possibly because the bullying I endured was more of the quietly vicious whispering variety), but being aware of who's around and where is entirely sensible. Similarly, while young-men-shouting isn't a major trigger for me, keeping out of the way of drunken yobs is a fairly good survival strategy. But surely walking down the middle of a road attracts more attention than walking along the pavement?

(Also, you seem happy to walk along the unlit path through the graveyard with me; are you hoping I'll defend you with elite ninja skillz?)
anat0010 From: anat0010 Date: January 20th, 2005 09:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Oh ! Oh ! a Ranting Opportunity

People are incredibly bad at judging risk.

1 person in x thousand gets murdered in y years. Yes its tragic, yes its a waste of a life, should you worry about it personally ? No.

Do you worry everytime you cross the road ? Do you worry everytime you get into a car ? Do you worry everytime you enter a smoke filled pub ? Do you worry everytime you slob out on the sofa eating pizza and ice cream ? - Yet all these are much more dangerous and likely to kill you than anything involving the mysterious stranger. Your boyfriend / girlfriend is far more likely to murder you than the nutter with the wild eyes. Do you worry everytime your significant other takes a kinife to cut the vegetables ?

Oh and cycling actually *improves* your life expectancy, since the risk of the bus/lorry not seeing you is less than the benefit of improving your cardio vascular function.

So chill out, dont worry about dark alley ways, keep your wits about you, nevertheless, to ensure the safety of your wallet / phone. And bask in the smug glow that the exercise you are getting is actually improving your life expectancy.
j4 From: j4 Date: January 20th, 2005 10:38 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Oh ! Oh ! a Ranting Opportunity

Oh and cycling actually *improves* your life expectancy, since the risk of the bus/lorry not seeing you is less than the benefit of improving your cardio vascular function.

I'd be surprised if a 15-minute bike ride actually did my heart that much good... but it's the quickest way for me to get into work & it's less unhealthy (for me and the environment) than driving, so.
Read 51 | Write