Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 13:18 UK

Who still leaves their door unlocked?

Locked doors [picture credit (from left to right: Getty Images, SPL, AP)]

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A police operation in Liverpool has revealed that many people leave their front doors unlocked at night, allowing anybody to walk in. But in this age of all-consuming fear of crime, why would anybody do that?

The following bedtime routine is probably familiar to many in the UK.

Check back door is locked. Close and lock the windows. Lock the mortise lock on the front door. Set the alarm. Then - and only then - is the time to climb into bed.

Even for people who don't go to these lengths, most of us would make sure the front door at least couldn't be opened from the outside.

These are security conscious times, where fear of burglary is high, so it is surprising that anybody would go to bed in the knowledge that any stranger could walk up their path, turn the handle and walk into their house.

Boy pushing girl on swing in doorway
Another reason to leave the door open

And yet that is just what a police operation in Liverpool is finding. After a spate of burglaries in two areas in the north of the city, officers have been patrolling at night and trying front door handles.

Many in the UK will be most familiar with doors on nightlatches - typically associated with the Yale brand - where closing the door is enough to lock. But increasingly, people have PVC doors, with handles, that need to be locked.

In Liverpool, out of 3,500 doors with handles checked by police, 66 were unlocked. A further 14 had large ground floor windows open. The residents were woken and warned about the danger of leaving such easy access for a burglar.

Of course, many older people may remember an era when an unlocked front door was a common thing. And there are far-flung areas of the UK where such an approach is the norm.

Isobel Holbourn lives on the island of Foula, 20 miles from the Shetland mainland.

"I don't have a lock because I live in a remote beautiful island that is totally safe. There are other people, some lock their doors, it's personal preference. There is no need because we are 20 miles offshore. You couldn't get very far if you came in and swiped the silver."

The island has a population of 30, swelled by visiting relatives and workmen at this time of year, but everybody knows each other and an atmosphere of trust pervades.

"I would fully expect if somebody's car broke down near me they would walk into my house and use the phone. If somebody needed something out of the shed, I would expect somebody to go in and help themselves."

No fear

But travelling to the mainland - population 17,550 - brings new concerns.

"Now when we leave the island for the mainland of Shetland, you have to change your mindset and be aware of your security and looking after your wallet and your keys."

There may even be far-flung areas of Scotland, England, and Wales where people do not think it necessary to lock up at night. But surely the norm in most places, and certainly in big towns and cities, must be locking?

One woman, who lives in a town near Brighton, but does not wish to be named, says she routinely doesn't think to lock the front door.

I would suspect that sneak-in burglaries are more common during the day
Stuart Lister
University of Leeds

"There's absolutely no thought whatsoever in it. If I think about it I don't do it [leave the door open]. But most of the time I've got other things on my mind. What are they going to take?"

She is not scared of being burgled.

"Not really no. If I was scared I wouldn't live there."

Dr Carol Jones, criminologist and senior lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire says the figures from the Liverpool police operation are surprising, but it might be understandable in some cases.

"When I've done research in the past relating to elderly people, particularly relating to burglary, people were saying things like 'I've lived here for years and nothing's ever happened to me so why should it happen now'."

Open door
Now it's rare to see someone's home door ajar

And of course people's fear of burglary is not necessarily in direct proportion to the risk of being burgled. Burglars tend to operate near to where they live.

"Burglars tend to operate not far from the home, operate within a mile of where they live," says Stuart Lister, lecturer in criminal justice at the University of Leeds.

"Burglary is a form of acquisitive crime, it is driven by lack of resources. [Burglars] tend to offend in areas where people are of similar socio economic status, and don't have resources to spend on sophisticated burglar alarms."

Dr Jones - who led a Home Office evaluation into the Locks for Pensioners scheme - puts it even more bluntly.

"The most stringent initiatives against being broken into are taken by the very people who are less likely to be burgled, people who live in nice leafy suburbs in nice semis."

'Defensible space'

Jimmy Torrance, a security engineer, locksmith and criminologist estimates in a "typical" street you might find one in 60 houses where there is a door or window left open.

And of course, all this assumes that a typical burglar would even try the front door.

"It's interesting they are doing it during the night time because I would suspect that sneak-in burglaries are more common during the day," says Mr Lister.

Mr Torrance suggests many burglars would not try the front door at night. It is what security experts would call a "defensible space", one that is so visible that it poses problems for the criminal.

"The trouble with the front door is there are so many people driving up and down the road. It does happen but it's fairly rare, unless you are talking about 3.30 in the afternoon."

And of course, it all depends on what type of door you have. If it's a PVC door with a handle, or a wooden door with a handle and a mortise lock but no nightlatch, then you have to remember to lock it.

If you have a nightlatch then just pulling it closed is enough.

And surely nobody can forget to close the door.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Nothing wrong with sensible precautions, but people seem to go to one extreme or other. My girlfriend insist on locking the front windows if we pop out for five minutes - and she lives on the fifth floor of a seven-storey apartment block. Also, with regard to locking doors with a separate key at night whilst you are in the house, remember your need to get out (ie: in the event of fire) is paramount.
RichyB, Swindon

Of course nobody would forget to shut the door ... but I have shut mine with the keys (and my garage and car key) still in the lock on the outside. Only once and it was a heart stopping moment when I realised it.
Carina, Faringdon

I live in a flat in an out of town development and we almost never lock our front door. Ours is a self contained flat so the front door is straight into the street. Ours is a safe neighbourhood and the chances of being broken into at night are rare. We will lock it if we have been drinking and worried about falling into a deep sleep but during the week we feel safe. It all depends on your perception. I don't want to live my life in fear.
Alan, Dunfermline

I saw the headline and had to laugh. We live in a rural area that's a bit of a job to get too. I've lived here for over a decade now and although we lock up at night, our house is unlocked any other time - even when we are away. None of us carry house keys. Haven't ever seen one for this place now that I think about it. Friends are often taken aback when we ask them to not lock up if we aren't there as we would have to break in.

I'm surprised by this report - but only because I thought that almost everyone left their doors unlocked. On houses where I have had a Yale lock, the door was locked by default, but in my current house which is just mortice locked I never lock my door at night - in fact I rarely lock it at any time. My neighbours are usually around in the day, and I find it highly unlikely that someone would randomly try my door at night! The only time I've ever had a break in, they broke a window at the back of my house when my front door was unlocked.
Jake Hadlee, Swindon

I once went downstairs quite late on a Sunday morning, leaving my husband sleeping off his night on the tiles having come to bed several hours after me. To my horror, the front door was wide open, which leads straight into our living room containing TV, DVD player, stereo etc. Even worse, all his keys were hanging in the lock, including the key to his car parked outside.
Sarah, Helmshore, Lancashire

Living in North Yorkshire, we often left the door unlocked - partly a sense of community, partly a sense that, if someone wanted to be in, they would manage it whatever we did. Now, living in the south west, we routinely lock the door - and this is where we have been burgled.
Trevor Smith, Plymouth

I often leave my door unlocked, and it is often wide open during the day. I have considered the risks, which are very low where I live, with good neighbours. It would be very noticeable if a stranger came to my door. However, I am careful to lock garden doors and close windows where access could be obtained more easily. Many years ago I lived in a terraced house and never locked the door. This was mainly because it was also a safe area, but equally I owned nothing worth taking. A few times I woke to find that a friend had turned up in the middle of the night and was asleep on the sofa.
Sarah Mould, Norwich, UK

I always lock both front & back doors which are of the uPVC double glazed type with industrial quality locks, however I have been known on one or two occasions to forget that the patio window has not been secured. However one evening in the 1980s we were settled down watching TV when this middle aged man walked in, he was immediately very embarrassed as he had come to the wrong house, he was in fact the uncle of my next door neighbour. I would always expect my relatives to ring the front door bell and not just walk in.
Michael Cawood, Wrexham, Wales, UK

As a frequent visitor to small town Canada I can assure you there are still plenty of people who do not lock front doors, back doors or even cars. But these are small communities where everyone knows everyone else, so the only risk is from occasional "out of towners".

Bill Bryson records a similar story while looking for a new home when he took his English family to live in the land of his birth. The estate agent found the front door to one (only one) property locked, but the back door was open.
Howard, London, UK

Our biggest problem is forgetting to remove the keys from our front door lock - several times each year, someone will go out the front door, turn to pull it closed - and realise a bunch of keys is there in the lock. Quite often, they have been left there since mid-afternoon the day before.

We live on a main road which is busy with traffic but relatively few pedestrians passing, and our house is set a few feet back from the pavement, and you would actually have to approach the door to spot the keys. Our house has never yet been broken into, although our neighbour has once, many years ago.

Fortunately, we are lucky to live in a low-crime area, with an active Neighbourhood Watch, so security isn't the first thing on our minds at all times. But we are trying hard to stop doing it - and have been for about 30 years, so far.
I prefer not to say in view of my comments!

Around the mid 1990s I lived in a small commuter village in the Kentish weald, and never worried about leaving the back door unlocked at night. Things may have changed with the swelling population in the area, though. Where I holiday in Snowdonia the house is so remote that there's no necessity to lock any doors at night. I love the feeling of security, which is so precious. Being able to trust others is even more so.
Surburbanite, Wolverhampton UK

I've spent a lot of time working in the Scottish Islands and find the habit of leaving your door (and car) unlocked hard to break. I often leave the door unlocked at night and when I'm out at work. I've even been known to leave the front door wide open. So far no harm has come of it so maybe we're all too paranoid about crime, or perhaps the thieves just think that no one would be that stupid.
Clare, Scotland

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