Despite the publicity, women's anxieties about driving alone are largely ill-founded. Emma Cook reports
YOU'RE female, alone and driving along an isolated stretch of road miles from home. It's late at night and pouring with rain. The engine stalls. It's impossible to start the car. The last telephone box you saw was miles back on the motorway.

Through the rain, you see a lone man walking towards the car. What should you do? Lock all the doors and sit tight? Risk asking a stranger in the middle of nowhere for help? Or see if you can sort the problem out yourself? If a man was in a similar position, it's doubtful the options would sound so daunting.

Such a cliched scenario, offering an image of vulnerability, is nevertheless a potent one: most chillingly reflected, perhaps, in Hitchcock's Psycho. When Janet Leigh drives through torrential rain, alone, lost and terrified, into the grasp of the ulti- mate psychopath, the female-driver-as-victim is immortalised.

Since then the theme has been reworked and played upon by advertisers, news editors and sundry film directors. Now it seems, it is the turn of car manufactures and a new breed of marketers.

The latest campaign to target women's anxiety about driving and breaking down on the road has been launched by the South Korean car manufacturer Daewoo. It has enlisted the assistance of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the Metropolitan Police.

Daewoo, which launched its cars nationally last month, is advertising heavily on television and raising its profile through PR events. One of these is the Daewoo Lady Driver 1995, in which women are invited to take part in a safe-driving competition. Part of the test is to demonstrate their awareness of personal safety and security.

According to Mark Carbery, a company spokesman, the idea evolved from research Daewoo carried out to pinpoint what consumers disliked most about purchasing a car. "What's interesting was out of 130,000 or so, more than 26 per cent of respondents were women - much higher than you'd expect."

More interesting, the research had absolutely nothing to do with gauging the extent of female fear of driving. The fact that so many women replied to the questionnaire was, in itself, an inducement to promote their safety.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is also planning a series of talks to take place, conveniently, in Daewoo showrooms. "We know that with new phenomena like carjacking and road rage, there is more to worry about than just the accident factor," says a Suzy Lamplugh spokeswoman, Fiona Brown. "There are different types of hostility that women now have to cope with."

For Daewoo, the project is commercially advantageous. "We know women play a key element in the car-buying process, so we're not being totally altruistic," Mr Carbery admits. "We want to get sales and get women, because they're important to us."

So important, apparently, that they need to be preserved at all costs - and that means special features fitted as standard. When a female Daewoo driver stops at traffic lights and spots a suspect individual she can activate a window-locking system triggered at the flick of a button. There is also a free mobile phone with each model, which can be connected to an emergency line.

It's tempting to speculate that Daewoo has shot itself in the foot - who wants to be lectured about the danger of breaking down in a car that they haven't yet bought? Surely, it's far more persuasive, for a woman, to be assured, for example, that there's nothing more reliable than a Volkswagen - particularly when female fear of driving alone and at night is so strong.

Automobile Association (AA) research among 600 women shows 65 per cent are anxious of night driving. One commented: "I keep a man's trilby hat in the car. After 11 at night, I'm always conscious of sitting upright and I always put my trilby on." Fifty per cent of respondents do not enjoy negotiating a motorway alone. This is reflected in the 1992 British Crime Survey, which found 49 per cent of women worried about their personal safety.

The extent of their fears contrasts sharply with reality. An AA spokesman, Andrew Ruck, describes the level of attacks on female drivers as "statistically almost negligible". Yet when Marie Wilkes was murdered seven years ago on the motorway after her car broke down, women suddenly seemed more at risk. As well as drawing intense media attention, the incident prompted a wealth of motoring dos and don'ts from breakdown services.

In 1990, the Royal Automobile Club launched its "Knights of the Road" advertising campaign, which portrayed an emotive scene of a female driver immobilised in her car in the pouring rain. Yet spokeswoman Shirley Jones argues that the RAC did not want to exacerbate the hype. "We felt pushed into a corner a bit after the Wilkes tragedy," she says. "I'm particularly keen to avoid making women feel they can't do things on their own."

So the RAC designed a number of workshops to teach women the basics of car maintenance. Ms Jones explains: "They want to feel better equipped to get themselves out of minor trouble. It creates more confidence."

The only concern is that it always seems to be companies with a vested financial interest in the female customer which give security issues a high profile - often selling a brand name on the strength of it.

In their zeal to compete with each other, the number of safety classes, workshops and in-car products available have multiplied at a much faster pace than the crimes they purport to address. Mr Ruck argues that there have been only a handful of recorded attacks on motorists in the past 10 years, an almost insignificant phenomenon compared to the 300,000 road accidents that occur annually.

It seems that "personal safety" is fast catching up with another lucrative but nebulous area: "personal hygiene". Just as there are sprays and moist- wipes to deodorise areas of your body you never knew needed it, safety products are flourishing in a similar way.

It's hard to know which is more heavily hyped: the advent of a new type of car crime (take your pick from carjacking, mugging and road rage) or the gadgets that can protect you from these perils. Mobile phones, locking devices, sprays and, best of all, the inflatable male passenger to deter any would-be psycho, are all offered as essential armour to protect female drivers.

Judging by the statistics, women are more likely to fall victim to greedy marketers than any new spate of road crimes. And if Daewoo is concerned about lone female travellers stranded by the roadside, perhaps it should suggest she take the train instead.