Does streetlighting cut crime?

Lights, dogs or wheelie bins? Which is the best deterrent against crime? Chief Inspector Gordon Routledge examines the evidence. 

Whether lighting cuts crime seems like one of those questions that’s just too obvious to ask. And it’s a stance that you’d expect the lighting industry to push because it’s good for business.

I’ve had my own views on this subject for quite some time: I make sure the back of my house is as dark as possible. Any would-be burglar, peeping tom or unwelcome relative will, in the dark, have to find out how to open the gate, navigate some (often icy) steps, plot a route past an ever-growing fleet of wheelie bins and recycling bags and avoid a selection of children’s shoes.

Indiana Jones would struggle to overcome these cunning booby traps without causing a rumpus and triggering the second line of defence: the dog. The dog has grown accustomed to the latest in lighting technology over the years, so a well-placed security light switching on will do nothing to interrupt his slumber. The noise of Jimmy Scumbag and his druggy mate knocking over a wheelie bin, however, will.

But what if your home is bathed in an orange glow courtesy of the local council, and you have nothing more intimidating than a goldfish to guard it? Well it’s time to get a dog, or ask the council to turn those lights off, because a growing body of evidence suggests that lights lead to no change in crime levels and (gasp) may actually increase them.

A survey by the UK government titled Decision-making by house burglars: offenders’ perspectives mentions many factors burglars consider as a deterrent, but doesn’t mention lighting once. However, this may be an example of what social scientists call selection bias, since it’s a survey of burglars who got caught – perhaps the ones who recognise the value of a good lighting scheme are the ones who get away.

What’s even more telling is that the Association of British Insurers does not recommend outdoor lighting as a crime deterrent. Indeed, insurance companies do not offer a reduction in your premiums if you have security floodlights, because there is little evidence to suggest that lighting reduces crime.

Another UK government report from 1991, The influence of streetlighting on crime and the fear of crime, states: ‘The principal conclusion is that no evidence could be found to support the hypothesis that improved streetlighting reduces reported crime. The main database for the study consisted of over 100,000 reported crimes… The area studied, an inner London borough, has a high crime rate in a national context and thus represented a fair test for environmental crime-prevention measures.’ In short, if streetlighting reduces crime, this study should have detected it.

In Essex, a trial to turn off suburban streetlights between midnight and 5.30am proved successful in reducing crime. Police said: ‘A year-on-year comparison for April 2006 to May 2007 (when streetlights were left on all night) and April 2007 to May 2008 (when streetlights were turned off at midnight) has shown that night-time crime has almost halved in Saffron Walden and reduced by over a third in Dunmow.’

Sadly even streetlights themselves can become victims of crime. In May 2010 thieves stole more than 60 heritage street lanterns and the columns that supported them. It’s not known if the lights were stolen during the day or night, and if the crime rate in the area decreased after the area was plunged into darkness.

So does lighting reduce crime? I’m struggling to find the evidence (although I’m sure the keyboards of ILP members and outdoor lighting manufacturers across the land are now red hot). If you can find some evidence, then please get in touch. Until then, remember that violent crime is actually very rare, so don’t have nightmares.

Join in the debate on streetlighting and crime at LuxLive in the Lux Arena at 3.10 pm on Thursday 19 November.

Panel Discussion: Does lighting cut crime?

Manufacturers love to claim that their lights will make us safer. But the latest evidence suggests otherwise. What's the real truth about lighting and crime? Phil Edwards, an expert on transport and health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, whose research sparked the debate on the topic earlier this year, debates with other experts including Reine Karlsson of Lund University, Nigel Parry of OrangeTEK and Simon Nicholas an independent streetlighting quality campaigner.

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Folks, Lots of generalities flying around here. 1) "Good" lighting is not necessarily "more" lighting. More light does not equate to more safety. (Lots of science on this. ) Brightly-illuminated zones create dark areas at the margins. By so doing, pedestrians are 'safer' inside the lit-areas, but more-vulnerable outside. High-contrast lighting creates places for bad-guys to hide. 2) Type of fixture is also critical: does the 'street-light' have proper shielding so light is directed downward where it's needed, vs. horizontally where it simply shines in everyone's eyes ? 3) Publicly-lit spaces are proper location for the best SPECTRUM of light, since 'even', overall-lighting creates space in which the human-eye be best-utilized for protection and defense. An amber visual area may be far more-desirable - for multiple reasons - than an over-lit LED blast-zone. 4) Timing is also relevant. When is the light needed? Can it function on a motion-sensor trigger ? - Too much light can be harmful to human health, and society has been living in electrified nocturnal environments for a relatively short period of time. Jurisdictions considering street-lighting overhaul need to become knowledgeable about the complexities of this issue. Suggest Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition or International Dark Skies Association. Inform yourself for better results.

A good friend of mine has only two days ago been burgled by someone who used the wheely bin to jump onto the gate, onto the garage roof, from where they could kick in a first floor window. The new LED streetlight was just enough for them to see what they were doing without drawing undue attention to their actions.

A good friend of mine has only two days ago been burgled by someone who used the wheely bin to jump onto the gate, onto the garage roof, from where they could kick in a first floor window. The new LED streetlight was just enough for them to see what they were doing without drawing undue attention to their actions.

It is an interesting concept about darkness reducing crime. Clearly complete inky darkness would put many in the position of not being able to find their way around to do burglary or property damage. But crimes of violence against individuals is a different thing completely, where removing the cover of darkness allows one to avoid attackers and also allows others to see what is going on. So it would seem that it depends on what kind of crime one is considering as to the effect of illumination. IN the Detroit area crime against persons had increased in areas where the street lighting has failed.

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