Every year, Washington D.C.-based CQ Press issues a national study claiming to have determined the safest and most dangerous communities in America. This study enjoys heavy media coverage from coast to coast. Those deemed safest celebrate and boast. And every year the study comes out, CQ Press’ definition of “safe” and “dangerous” draws the protests from city mayors and even the FBI, which complain that their crime statistics are used erroneously and irresponsibly. CQ Press defines “safe” and “dangerous” communities using only FBI violent crime statistics–murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery–and also property crime stats (burglary, larceny, arson, and motor vehicle theft).But amazingly, this formula includes motor vehicle theft but not motor vehicle crashes.The serious irony is that with their faulty formula, CQ Press inspires many people to move from safer to more dangerous places, rather than the other way around. In their 2010 report, CQ Press deemed the Town of Colonie, a suburban municipality outside of Albany, as the safest community in America. The adjacent City of Albany, on the other hand, was in the top quartile for danger. Yet a review of recent Colonie automobile crash headlines paints a picture of significant car carnage:
“Deadly hit and run accident in Colonie” (May 2012)
“Loudonville man killed in Colonie crash” (February 2012; car split in two from front to back after hitting tree)
“Two suffer injuries in Colonie school bus crash” (February 2012)
“Colonie man dead after rollover accident” (January 2012)
“Three injured in Colonie school bus accident” (January 2012)
“Charges filed in fatal accident on Old Niskayuna Road in Colonie” (January 2012)
“Man convicted in Colonie accident gets up to 15 years” (December 2011)
“Delmar man killed in Colonie crash” (November 2011)
“2009 Colonie Central High School Graduate Dies in Motorcycle Accident” (August 2011)
“Gloversville Man, 56, dies following two-car accident in Colonie” (July 2011)
“Greenfield motorcyclist hit by car on Central Ave. in Colonie dies” (May 2011)
“Colonie crash kills woman, 21, car split in half” (October 2010)
Once car-nage is factored in, the places considered safe and dangerous often switch places. Thanks to the research of University of Virginia planning professor William Lucy, the CQ Press study has been getting the criticism it so badly deserves. CQ essentially encourages moving from cities to suburbs and rural areas, saying people are much less likely to be murdered, robbed, raped, or have their cars stolen there. But Lucy’s research revealed that the chance of dying in a traffic crash is thirteen times greater than being killed by a stranger. When these crashes are included in a measure of the danger of leaving home, many outer suburban and rural areas—claimed to be the safest by not only CQ Press but also by the majority of real estate agents—are actually the most dangerous places to be.
Cities look pretty good in this more complete analysis. For example, Professor Lucy discovered through his 2006 research that rural Grundy County, Illinois (population 37,000) was a significantly deadlier place to live than Cook County—including the City of Chicago—as it had a death-by-auto rate three times higher. Bringing it closer to home: the City of Rochester in 2009 had seven traffic fatalities within the city limits; adjacent exurban/rural Ontario County had eight. But the City of Rochester’s population (210,000) in 2009 was roughly twice that of Ontario County (108,000). This means the fatal car crash rate per capita is twice greater in the exurban and rural area than in the city.
True, being killed is not the only safety concern for people, but to include auto theft and not auto crashes when defining the safety of our communities is beyond absurd. Our blindness to the greatest peril most of us face—the automobile—is reflected in the way we have designed the built environment over the last sixty years, in the decisions made by many Americans about where to live and how to get around, and by the way we define safe and dangerous.
Design of the built environment has enormous impact on safety. Four hours west of Colonie is the Town of Greece, a Rochester suburb that has enjoyed several top ten rankings in CQ Press’ annual study. Recently, a beloved local police officer–who retired after a brain injury suffered in a car crash a decade earlier–was killed by a flipping SUV as he walked a sidewalk along one of the town’s arterial roads. This road, four and sometimes more lanes in width, has a speed limit of 45 mph but regularly sees speeds over 55 mph (noted landscape architect Ian McHarg once said, “If a road is designed like a gun barrel, people are going to drive like bullets”), and has its sidewalks right at the edge of the outside lanes. So Sonny Chung walked a sidewalk shielded in no way from the gun barrel road on which he died. In the years before decentralization and suburban sprawl, communities planted their street trees between the road and the sidewalk, to provide a safety shield as well as shade and beauty for the pedestrians. In the auto-centric sprawl era, most suburban and exurban roads (and many urban ones too) were designed like West Ridge Road, where Sonny Chung was killed: the sidewalk and the pedestrian an afterthought, the sidewalk in a place that puts anyone on foot just feet away from high speed, significantly distracted motorists.
But what about the violent crime, you say? Outer suburbs and rural areas have few homicides compared to cities, and yes, usually lower rates of homicide. But the high majority of murders are not random—they are the result of being involved in drugs, gangs, or domestic disputes. In other words, with random violent crimes being rare, you are overall probably safer living and walking in a city than you are living a car-dependent life in the outer suburbs or rural areas. In 2009, 1 of every 20,816 Americans was murdered; 1 in 9,080 died in a motor vehicle crash; and 1 in 137 was injured in a motor vehicle crash. Also: recent FBI analysis also reveals that violent crime in large cities has declined dramatically, while the murder rate in small towns under 10,000 has shot up 18 percent.
Surely, statistics can be bent and shaped in many ways. But what is not bendable is the fact that we are gauging safety and danger in our communities in incomplete and ironic fashion. Sadly, parents are moving their kids outward into the outer suburbs and country to make them safer, discounting completely the fact that those are the most dangerous places to drive, and that by far the most common cause of death for young children and teenagers is auto crashes. Until we insist that CQ Press and the rest of the auto-blind establishment factor in the greatest danger we face, we are going to fool ourselves, and fail ourselves, at a terrible cost.
This piece has been contributed by Evan Lowenstein of Green Village Consulting, consultant to Empire State Future.