In fear of living dangerously

We have become a society of strangers, in which trouble lurks around every corner

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Just when it looked as if everything was shaping up for a perfect White Christmas, brutal reality barged back in with the reports on radio and television of the disappearance of 19-year-old Celine Figard, last seen being picked up by a lorry driver at a motorway service station a few days before Christmas, as she hitched her way to spend the holidays with her cousin. As every day goes by, the fears for her grow and the police were worried enough to raise the status of their inquiry to a murder investigation, so turning her smiling face into a symbol of youthful trust betrayed by a dangerous society.

Already, many are drawing what they take to be the obvious moral. You can't trust anyone. Strangers are dangerous and only a fool would choose to hitch, deliberately laying themselves open to psychopaths and weirdos. This is a predictable response and an understandable one. We have a culture that extols the virtues of freedom and choice, yet we seem to find them inherently destabilising. Rising mobility and the accompanying erosion of communities and neighbourhoods seem to have ushered in a society of strangers. Greater freedom has been accompanied by rising crime, especially violent crime, which heightens insecurity, fuels paranoia and creates a crisis of trust. People are becoming ever more concerned about personal safety and have become obsessed with eliminating risks.

We seem to yearn for controlled environments: whether shopping in malls such as Lakeside in Thurrock or Meadowhall in Sheffield, which have closed- circuit television cameras, stable temperatures and no rain; on holiday in places such as Centre Parcs and Disneyland, where leisure is organised within clearly defined parameters; or on package holidays, where there's always someone in charge (and someone to complain to). Risks to our bodies are eliminated, for example, by not eating beef because of a million-to- one chance that we might contract CJD, and those who like to live dangerously do it through organised activities like bungee jumping which look hazardous but are, in fact, almost wholly safe.

In this context, any kind of chance encounter with people in cars can seem like the ultimate danger. It's certainly provided good material for popular culture, with films like The Hitcher and Butterfly Kiss playing on the dangers of the road, as well as cleverly inverting the power relationship between hitcher and driver by making the hitcher the murderer. Public anxiety about hitching has also been raised by real life events. In the macabre tale of Cromwell Street, the fact that Frederick West hunted his victims by trawling the streets at night, finding damsels in distress and offering them a lift and a bed for the night, was a stark reminder of the horrors that await if you accept lifts from strangers. What makes matters worse is that West's story seemed to disprove the commonly accepted rules for minimising risk. The women who accepted lifts from Frederick West were not stepping into a car late at night with a lone man; more often than not, Rosemary West was present, able to reassure the victims that they would be safe precisely because she was a woman.

Over the airwaves, in print, on celluloid and on television, there is a consistent message: the world has become such a dangerous place that we dare not risk chance encounters. Everyone is a potential psychopath, every lorry driver a potential Peter Sutcliffe. Predictably, another bad hitching episode now means that in pubs and on talk shows around the country people are lining up to call for an out and out ban on hitching. Others are calling on hitchers to stop hitching, and on drivers to "just say no". The message to drivers seems to be that you've got to be cruel to be kind; better to drive past a rain-sodden woman standing by the roadside than pick her up because that will send the message that it's not worth trying to hitch in the first place.

Doubtless many parents who fear for their own children's safety will feel that this is only common sense. Yet the moral that is being drawn is surely wrong. This is partly a matter of proportion and partly a matter of the impossibility of avoiding strangers. The number of hitchers who are seriously hurt remains miniscule and while many have less than pleasant experiences, particularly if they are single women, that's true of many other things we do in life, such as walking down a street late at night, driving a car on lonely stretches of road or stepping into a car with a person purporting to be interested in buying a house, as the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh did.

True, we can try to insure against the risks. We can do self-defence classes, we can try to avoid walking home at night or we can splash out on a mobile phone for the car. We can follow the advice of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust - the charity set up after her disappearance to educate other women on personal safety - which has significantly concentrated its efforts on arming and equipping women with safety techniques to minimise risks, not on prescribing yet further limits on women's freedom. Yet, however much we do all of this there will always be some of us who, because of money, or because we have been caught off our guard, will still run into dangers.

Moreover, while we can try to avoid the possibility of chance encounters, we can never truly eliminate the risk of them - even in the most controlled environments. It's worth remembering that Jamie Bulger was led to his death from a video-monitored shopping centre and that the technology may have helped to catch his attackers, but it did not save his life. And while we invest thousands in burglar alarms to secure our homes, we still don't feel entirely safe from random attacks.

But the more serious flaw in the arguments of those who want to screen away all risks is that even if we could buy our way to safety we would be so aware of all the dangers that life wouldn't be much fun anyway. We would be alive but psychically dead, victims of our own anxieties and our own self-created prisons. Moreover, an organised, predictable world - one without risks and without chance encounters - would be a very boring one. So those of us who actually welcome the benefits of greater freedom - the opportunity to travel, to meet people from all walks of life and to be more mobile than we have ever been - should be prepared to embrace some risks while also learning to be careful and streetwise. Indeed, a degree of risk-taking is one of the ways in which young adults learn the survival techniques they will need throughout their lives. And in the final analysis, how many of us at any age would really be happy in a society where everything was controlled and predictable?

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