May 13, 2002 -- 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.
With fewer cars and traffic lights and higher speed limits, people in less developed areas tend to drive faster. Road conditions may be poorer in less central areas, and there are more unprotected embankments.
It may take more time for rescue officials to learn of accidents in outer areas, and ambulances and emergency workers have farther to go to reach victims.
The biggest factor may be that people further out from city centers drive more. They simply have to cover greater distances to access services.
Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of fatal traffic accidents occur on two-lane roads. In 1997, only 11 percent happened on interstate highways, according to government data.
"The car implies control," Lucy says, "Walking down a dangerous street implies the opposite.
"The car has the image of control because it is so powerful, but that power makes it so dangerous."
People may commonly misperceive other "urban versus rural" risks.
A 2000 study by National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that eighth-graders in rural America are about twice as likely than those in urban centers to use amphetamines, including methamphetamines, and 50 percent more likely to use cocaine.
The study also found they are 83 percent likelier to use crack cocaine, and 34 percent more likely to smoke marijuana than eighth-graders in urban centers.