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Study says rural life more risky than urban

Monday, May 06, 2002

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Challenging the premise that sparsely settled outer suburbs are safer than cities, a University of Virginia professor has concluded that persons living in rural areas like Fayette County have a higher risk of dying in a traffic accident or being murdered by a stranger than residents of a metropolitan area like Pittsburgh.

Online graphic

Contrasting indicators of urban, rural safety


William H. Lucy, professor of urban and environmental planning, studied eight urban areas, including greater Pittsburgh, for three to four years to test theories that dictate where people live and how they decide what is safe.

While raw statistics supported the commonly held theory that the risk of dying by homicide is higher in cities than in rural areas, when Lucy factored in fatal traffic accidents, the statistics showed that life was actually more dangerous for rural residents.

There, "people drive farther and faster and on narrow and curvy roads," Lucy said last week. "Many people kill themselves in single [vehicle] traffic accidents."

Lucy said he was inspired to do the study by his dislike of sprawl.

"We would like to see cities and suburbs revived," Lucy said in a phone interview from Charlottesville, Va. "I am interested in questions about what influences where people live. They leave places that they view as unsafe and move to places that they consider to be safe."

Lucy gathered statistics from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia and the suburbs and counties surrounding them. In total, he compared 68 counties and cities.

Lucy found that Fayette County was 14th most dangerous, based on traffic fatalities and homicides by strangers. Butler County placed 27th, Westmoreland County was 33rd, Beaver and Pittsburgh tied for 46th and Allegheny County, excluding Pittsburgh, was 64th, one of the safest.

Contrary to commonly held assumptions, Lucy said, the statistics show that persons who live far out in suburbia or in low-density rural areas actually have a higher risk of dying a violent death -- defined as a fatal car crash or homicide by someone other than a spouse, relative or friend -- than persons who live in a city.

Professor Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, called the study "intriguing" but said it did not convince him that urban residents should feel safer than those in rural areas.

"In general, homicide rates are higher in the city than the suburbs and the suburbs are higher than rural areas," he said.

From 1997 to 1999, Lucy found, the city of Pittsburgh's homicide rate was 1.3 per 10,000 persons, compared with 0.3 per 10,000 persons in Beaver and Fayette counties and 0.2 in Washington, Westmoreland, Butler and the rest of Allegheny County. He then refined the numbers to isolate the homicides that were committed by persons who didn't know the victims.

For the same time period, Lucy evaluated the risk of dying in a fatal car crash -- which he found was 2 per 10,000 persons in Fayette County, 1.4 per 10,000 in Butler, 1.2 in Washington and Westmoreland and 1 in Beaver. In Allegheny County outside Pittsburgh, the risk was 0.6 per 10,000; Pittsburgh's rate was 0.7 per 10,000 persons.

In each metropolitan area that he studied, Lucy found that the safest counties were those that bordered or rimmed the central city -- Baltimore County, Cook County in Chicago, Delaware and Montgomery counties bordering Philadelphia and Allegheny County surrounding Pittsburgh.

His study supports the premise that people tend to overestimate the risks of crime while underestimating the risks of driving.

Four years ago, the Post-Gazette came to a similar conclusion in a study that found that residents of Fayette and Greene counties were more than twice as likely to die a violent death as residents of Allegheny County.

That study was based on an analysis of nearly 25,000 deaths in Pennsylvania during a 10-year period. It found that the single factor that increased the chance of violent deaths was cars.

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