Want to make your life safer? Move closer to the big city, says one urban planning expert.
"Go where you think it's unsafe and you'll probably make a better choice," says Professor William Lucy, a University of Virginia professor, who recently completed a study of urban and suburban safety.
People might feel safer in the outer suburbs and "exurbs" — outer regions of cities — but in fact they are more at risk than those closer to downtown, he argues.
"The safest areas are inner suburbs; second are central cities," he says. "The most dangerous areas uniformly involve the outer suburbs or the exurbs."
Lucy's surprising results come from his unorthodox approach to the issue of safety.
Though crime dominates public fears about safety, car accidents kill far more people every year. Lucy decided to consider fatal car accidents as well as "stranger homicide" — killings by people unknown to the victim.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there were roughly twice as many traffic deaths as homicides, Lucy notes. In 1999, they were three times as numerous, as the nation's overall crime level dropped.
So, Lucy argues, if you want to be safe, worry about cars more than about people.
Traffic Deaths Far Outnumber Homicides
Lucy studied eight urban areas and their outlying regions: Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
The most dangerous areas typically were outside the city centers, and had very low population densities.
In Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, all five outer counties had higher death rates than the city itself.
In Dallas, half of the outlying counties had higher rates; in Houston, four of six did.
"Low density is associated with a high death rate," Lucy concludes.
What About Robbery, Assault, or Rape?
Lucy's analysis goes against much conventional wisdom on the subject. Morgan Quitno, a private research consulting firm that annually ranks America's "safest cities," considers only crime data, not traffic accidents, for example.
By their calculations, El Paso, Texas; Austin, Texas; San Jose, Calif; and San Diego are the country's safest cities, based on the most recent crime data available. Detroit ranked last.
Scott Morgan agrees it can be helpful to look at traffic accident data in assessing safety, but defends his firm's reports.
"I think most people view safety as more than just [the risk of] dying," says Morgan.
Less serious, more common problems are central to people's assessment of their own safety, he insists.
"People don't leave urban areas because they're going to get murdered," Morgan says. "They leave because they don't want to watch their car or have their car broken into."
Lucy admits there's more to safety than avoiding death. But he insists traffic data still tips the balance to urban areas.
"There are more traffic injuries by far than there are assaults," he says, noting that 5.3 million people were injured in vehicle accidents in 2000.
Any way you look at it, he says, car accidents are a bigger threat than crime.
A new federal study released this week concluded that car crashes cost the nation $230 billion a year.
There were 32,357 traffic deaths in rural areas in 2000, according to government data. In urban areas, there were 23,121.
Causes of Traffic Deaths
The National Highway Safety Transportation board has offered a list of possible reasons why people in outer suburbs are at greater risk of dying in a traffic accidents.