GETTING DEFENSIVE

TRIED & TESTED: Alarmed by the choice of self-defence gadgets and techniques flooding the market? Our panel picks the best
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Let's not panic: national statistics for crime show that assaults decreased by 6 per cent in the past year. But playing safe on the streets can still be a risky business, especially single-handedly. Whether you fear for your money or your life, you'll find a plethora of gadgets marketed as aids to self-defence.

THE PANEL

We asked four experts to assess which device might be the most effective in warding off an attack, they were Jacky Sales, consultant to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, national charity for personal safety; crime prevention officer PC Ann Howell; veterinary surgeon Bruce Fogle; and Sally Warburton of the AA. The panel was unanimous in its preference for a commodity provided free by all three organisations: sensible advice. Let the buyer beware, then - the results of our test show why some gadgets (or techniques) for self-defence could be more of a hindrance than a help.

*AUDIO OPTICS' SECURI PETITE PERSONAL EMERGENCY ALARM

pounds 12.95

A run-of-the-mill example of a battery-operated, personal-attack alarm, the cream, triangular Securi Petite is designed to be worn around the neck and promises a "powerful, (122 decibels) high-frequency siren" activated by a snatch cord. In effect, this is a loud, but not intolerable, bleating sound typical of car alarms which, as Jacky Sales pointed out, nobody pays any attention to. "The point of an alarm is to shock an attacker momentarily, to give you a chance to get away - not to summon help, which is often not forthcoming."

The manufacturers have clearly taken cognizance of the risk of strangulation with the device's neckcord by building in quick-release couplings, but their scaremongering list of "facts" on the alarm's packaging - warning, for example, that "most assaults [are] on women, children and the elderly" - irritated testers. "The truth is that most violence on the streets affects men between the ages of 16 and 24, a group who most often feel invulnerable and behave accordingly," said Ann Howell.

*MICROMARK SECURITY SYSTEMS PERSONAL ALARM

pounds 5.19

Another battery alarm with ripcord - this one in fluorescent orange plastic - the Micromark product is no more effective than the Securi Petite; we set it off in a small kitchen without any impressive damage to nerves or hearing. "Battery alarms may have a high decibel level," admitted Jacky Sales, "but the sound is not as harsh as that of aerosol alarms". After listening to half a dozen battery alarms not featured here, we decided all would scare an old lady if taken by surprise, but wouldn't deter a disco-hardened youth in an adrenalin rush of aggression.

At least the packaging of this one makes no lavish claims. Instructions for attaching the cord from wrist to handbag or briefcase, however, is not recommended by our crime experts. "Things like that just draw attention to the possibility that you're carrying something valuable," said Ann Howell. "You might get your arm ripped off as a result."

***SUZY LAMPLUGH TRUST PERSONAL ALARM PACK

pounds 6.49 plus 95p p&p

Chosen by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to sell by mail order after trials of over 60 personal alarms, this one is a medium-sized aerosol, activated by pressing an indentation in the cap. It emits a single pitch, harsh harmonic - in other words, a fairly excruciating shriek, and the only one to make us feel our walk to a deserted field to test the alarms had been worthwhile. As Jacky Sales reiterated, "That's all it does. It can give you a sense of confidence and control, but no more than that." Most importantly, however, it comes with a booklet, A Guide to Safer Living, which offers common-sense precautions to avoid attack.

***RAPEL AMPOULE

pounds 9.99 including p&p

This unusual self-defence product is alleged to derive from a home-made repellent odour, Campbell's synthetic skunk-oil mixture, named after a bear-hunter in northern Canada who feared being eaten by a grizzly and invented the mixture to render himself less appetising. The idea is to attach the tiny ampoule to your underwear, where you squeeze it hard in case of attack. This breaks the glass (which is contained in a plastic sheath to prevent cuts), releasing the odour-bearing liquid.

A group of six men assembled for our trial were divided as to the device's effectiveness in cases of potential sexual assault. Everyone agreed that the foul chemical (rather than animal) smell was bizarre and disorientating; only half felt it would deter a determined rapist. Rapel's drawback, we felt, was that the potential victim has to suffer the appalling stench until she or he can get home to use the accompanying deodoriser to remove the product from their clothes or skin. Ingenious, but something of a last resort.

***3M ULTRA WINDOW FILM

From pounds 180 including fitting

With so much media attention being paid to road rage, a few fearful travellers have been splashing out on this tough film for the windows of their cars. Designed for use on buildings to deter burglars (without the use of unsightly bars) 3M's Ultra Window Film has been shown in independent tests to be 30 times more tear resistant than similar products. You couldn't penetrate it with, say, a baseball bat. It is not puncture resistant, but even if a stone were thrown at a window sealed with the film, the attacker would not then be able to tear the shattered glass apart.

Sally Warburton felt it would be effective, if expensive, as an anti-theft device, "but it depends whether drivers are more worried about being trapped in their cars in an accident than they are about aggression." PC Howell took a different stance. "People are always anxious about being trapped - they make the same objection to my advice to lock their car doors. The fact is that even a tiny prang can put the doors out of alignment, making them really hard to open even if they were unlocked. And if the fire brigade attends an accident, it simply cuts the car open like a tin opener." The cost of equipping your car with the film depends on the number and size of windows covered.

***THE SILENT PASSENGER

pounds 39.90 including p&p

Perhaps the most amusing invention available on the self-defence market, this blow-up man, designed to fill the passenger seat of cars driven by lone women certainly tickled the fancy of our panel, in theory. In practice, despite (apocryphal?) tales of the Silent Pas-senger being asked to move along by traffic wardens and to give his personal details to policemen, we found his appearance a little disappointing. It's not that he needs a haircut - styling it is part of the process of "getting to know your Silent Passenger" as outlined in a hilarious, but sincerely meant set of instructions for use - it's just that he doesn't have a body, just an inflatable plastic pillow. To be fair, once dressed and assembled behind the seat belt, he does look almost human. Sally Warburton said the AA couldn't recommend such a device, since they are only convincing at speed. "In town they could actually draw more attention to you, as it's easier to see that it's a doll." Still, I grew quite fond of mine during the test period, and as his head nods naturally with the movement of the car, was almost inclined to follow the manufacturer's advice to talk to him in the interests of realism. I only caught one person - a pedestrian - staring intently at him. Advise keeping trousers, jacket and cap in the car for the driver's own use "because they make you into a sexless blob if you have to walk for help." The Silent Passenger, we decided, was a great gift for women who do a lot of driving on motorways and country lanes.

**SELF-DEFENCE CLASSES

Approximately pounds 30 per course from municipal bodies

Run widely throughout Britain by adult-education centres and other public institutions, self-defence classes are sometimes thought so effective that many women feel guilty for not participating in one. Yet our panel was sceptical of any benefits other than a boost to confidence. "So few people can be bothered to practise the techniques every day, so that they become second nature - which is the only way they can work - that having attended a course simply gives them a false sense of security," was Jacky Sales' advice. All the experts agreed that the movements taught are usually practised in track-suit and trainers - rather different from the tight skirt, high heels and bags of shopping which often encumber the would- be defendant. Ann Howell said such courses "are cheap, and can be fun," but recommended self-assertiveness training instead, because it can have a positive effect on the image you project.

*****GUARD DOG

From pounds 500 per annum including food, medical insurance and routine vaccinations

Not exactly cheap to maintain, but a lifelong friend and source of much warmth and joy as well as a potential bodyguard, a pet dog was approved of by all members of the panel. Senior police officers have acknowledged that a dog in the house is the best form of deterrent to burglars, but we wondered whether a family pet would defend an owner in danger of attack.

Veterinary surgeon Bruce Fogle noted, "It's conceivable that a dog would defend you, as it would defend a member of its pack against attackers. But it's more likely if the dog has been trained. Serious attack mode isn't necessary; most dogs can be trained to pull on the lead and bark aggressively when the owner gives an agreed signal. A Golden Retriever would be perfect."

STOCKISTS

Securi Petite, 0118 973 4422; Micromark, 0181 881 2001; Suzy Lamplugh Trust, 0181 392 1839; Rapel from Protectatech, 01752 606565; 3M Ultra Window Film from the Durable Berkley Company, 0118 948 3500; The Silent Passenger Company, 01252 319325.

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