WE are a nation afraid. Millions of middle-aged and elderly people refuse to venture out at night because of a fear of crime, an Age Concern survey has revealed.

Statistically speaking, this makes little sense. Recorded crime is on a general downward trend, and yet our dread of becoming a victim spirals ever higher. In the same way, the over-60s are less likely to be targeted for street crime than any other age group, yet they are among the most fearful.

But statistics have little to do with it. The unhappy truth is that Britain is an unfriendly, unpleasant place for too many people.

Pensioners are especially vulnerable. They see regular stories about muggings and unprovoked attacks and worry that they might be next.

But their fear cannot be explained away as a misconception created by the headline writers. Distressingly, many older people have personal experience of the anti-social element so prevalent today.

North Yorkshire would not feature in anyone's top ten dens of iniquity. Yet there are areas within this beautiful county where, at night, yobs stone buses, drunken youths hurl abuse at passers-by and drug deals are carried out on street corners.

These incidents rarely make it into the recorded crime statistics, but they are very real. So it is little wonder that many older people simply bolt themselves inside their homes every night.

In this way, the boorish and criminal minority have triumphed over the honest majority. That is a crime in itself.

This is a complex social problem with no easy answers. But if you asked those who are afraid to walk the streets at night what one thing would make a difference, most would say: bobbies on the beat.

That is why we applaud Chief Constable Della Canning's commitment to high visibility policing. As another 16 new recruits are sworn in, we hope that some of North Yorkshire police's record manpower will be deployed to patrol the worst-affected areas, day and night.

Updated: 11:05 Wednesday, May 21, 2003