Dangers in London

Traffic, pickpockets and bag snatchers are the main dangers to look out for in London.

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Crossing the Road (not a joke!)

This may sound laughable, but it's true - the greatest danger facing overseas visitors to London is undoubtedly the traffic. Traffic in the UK drives on the left, and it is therefore crucial to look right before stepping into the road. However, an estimated 80% of visitors to London are from countries that drive on the right, and they are therefore conditioned to look left.

The unfortunate result is that being hit by a moving vehicle is by far the greatest cause of injury - and indeed death - to visitors to London.

The solution is simple: train yourself - and especially any children with you - to always look both ways before stepping into or crossing any road. But of course people forget, especially on narrow streets and thoroughfares where the traffic moves relatively slowly, such as Shaftsbury Avenue and Oxford Street. I can't count the number of times I've seen someone walk out in front of a bus on Oxford Street. The drivers, of course, are used to it, but nevertheless there are regular fatalities. In an attempt to address the problem, there are 'Look Right' warnings at many major road crossings in central London. But that assumes you are at a crossing ('jay walking' is legal and perfectly normal behaviour in the UK, see below). Remember, always look both ways before stepping into the road!

Pedestrian Crossings

By law vehicles (and this includes cyclists) must give way when a pedestrian has moved onto a pedestrian crossing. Unfortunately, they don't always do so, and this is a particular problem in London. Often you'll have to wait for two or three cars to pass before one does finally stop. Even then you run the risk of being hit by a high-speed cycle courier (who can be major offenders). So keep your eyes and ears open, even if the cars have stopped for you.

'Jay Walking' is NOT illegal in the UK
British people are amazed to find, in countries such as the US and Germany, that they are expected to cross the road only at official crossings. Even more astonishingly, at traffic lights they are expected to wait for the 'green man' even if there is no vehicle in sight!

Not so in the UK, where pedestrians take it for granted that they may cross the road wherever they wish (within reason, that is - even Brits frown on those who insist on crossing major roads with central fences etc.). The pedestrian 'Green Cross Code' section of The Highway Code states: "Where there is a crossing nearby, use it. ... Otherwise choose a place where you can see clearly in all directions."

Pickpockets and Bag Snatching

Other than being hit by a car, the greatest of London's 'dangers' is to your belongings rather than to you personally. Most crime in central London falls into the 'opportunistic theft' category, and tourists loaded down with holiday cash, expensive cameras and phones obviously make tempting targets. The good news, however, is that theft is certainly not at the endemic levels suffered by a number of other European cities, and it's easy to avoid becoming a victim - use common sense and take some simple precautions:
  • Choose your bag wisely. Backpacks are great news for pickpockets - especially if you keep your valuables in the outer pocket. Instead wear a bag across your body, and keep your purse relatively inaccessible. If it's hard for you to get to, then it will be hard for someone to steal.
  • Don't for goodness sake carry your wallet or passport in your back pocket, or sticking out of your coat/shirt pocket. It sounds obvious, but if I had a pound for every time I've seen someone in front of me on a London escalator, their bulging wallet just at my eye height, I'd be wealthy! Do yourself a favour and don't offer yourself up as an easy target to thieves.
  • I hesitate to recommend money belts as I rarely use one myself. However, worn under clothing they're certainly a great way of keeping tickets and passports beyond the reach of even the most accomplished thief. An alternative is a neck pouch, or a small cross body bag, worn under your jacket or beneath your top layer of clothing.
  • Do keep your daily money (small change and lower denomination notes) separate from your larger notes, cards, tickets and passport. That way you're not getting everything all out - and exposing it to possible theft - every time you pay for something.
  • Consider using a small lock on the zip of your bag, which will deter all but the most determined of thieves. A simple wire sandwich bag tie, twisted through the zip and around the strap of the bag, does the same job.
  • Keep hold of your bag at all times - don't lay it (open!) on the counter beside you while your make a purchase. It can be gone before you know it.
  • If you have particularly desirable items with you, such as the latest phone or an MP3 player, it's better not to flash them about. That's not to say don't use your phone in public, but be aware of your surroundings as you do so.
  • Be wise to people trying to distract you: someone bumping into you or pushing past you, sudden noises, or notes pushed under your nose that you're expected to read. Also be wary of any incident on the street that draws a crowd - a group of people engaged in watching something is a great hunting ground for pickpockets.

You'll see signs around London, and especially in the tube stations, saying "Pickpockets are known to operate in this area". Some stations even have warning announcements. Victoria Station (rail, tube and coach) is notorious, but be aware in any station, both on the concourse and platforms, and in the train itself. The same goes for crowded buses. Other pickpocketing hotspots are Oxford Street, Leicester Square and surroundings, Covent Garden and Camden.

Although it does happen, you're very unlikely to have your bag snatched from you on the street. However, bag snatching is a real problem in pubs and restaurants, where people let down their guard and take their eyes off their bags. It's very common to see people place their handbags under their seat, or over the back of their chair. Don't do it! Keep your bag on your knee, or at least loop the strap around your arm or ankle, or the leg of your chair.
More and more restaurants now provide special clips attached under the tables which, in addition to making your bag very hard to steal, have the advantage of keeping them off grimy floors. If there's a clip - use it.

Two other places where you need to take special care of your bag are public restrooms and clothes shop changing rooms. Many restroom cubicles have a handy hook on the door, but beware - I've heard of cases where thieves have reached over the locked door to grab bags. Inconvenient though it is, the safest place is to keep your bag while using the toilet is on your knee / over your shoulder. Alternatively, if you can bear to place the bag on the floor, do so and place your foot through the loop of the strap. Considering the state of some of London's restrooms you may wish to place your bag in a plastic bag first!

In the unfortunate event that you do have something stolen, don't hesitate to report the incident to the police . The Police are frankly highly unlikely to be able to recover your property, however filing a police report and getting a report number will enable you to make a claim on your insurance. You do have insurance, don't you???

Finally, remember it's unlikely to happen to you, but don't be complacent. Everyone thinks it won't happen to them... until it does.

Lost Property

Don't give up hope if you've left something on a bus or train, or in a London taxi. The Transport for London (TFL) website offers comprehensive information on what to do it you have left something on any of London's public transport services, or in a taxi or minicab. More than 500 items are handed in every day, so it's certainly worth checking. Incidentally, London Time Out has a fascinating article about the TFL Lost Property Office here. Mainline stations and most museums and attractions have their own lost property offices, and again it's always worth contacting them if you've lost something on their premises.

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