Security is more than a matter of statistics

August 11, 1996|By Elise Armacost

AS IF THE WORLD isn't crazy enough, a new study concludes that most people are safer in cities than in suburbs.

I was foolish enough to share the news with two of our closest friends last weekend as we helped them move out of their rowhouse, just across from Memorial Stadium.

She's telling me how they can hear gunshots at night and rushing to McDonald's with a carload of edgy children who haven't had anything to eat because everybody's been too busy loading a U-Haul.

And I'm saying, "Really? I just came across this study that shows you're more likely to die in the suburbs than in the city." It wasn't what she needed to hear.

At any rate, the report is the work of the Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch, a non-profit group that studied the effects of suburban sprawl on the quality of life in the Pacific northwest. It examined police and highway statistics in six northwestern states and provinces and found far more people die and are injured in traffic accidents than as a result of criminal violence in urban areas.

"Tragically," the report said, "people often flee crime-ridden cities for the perceived safety of the suburbs -- only to increase the risks they expose themselves to."

Can so many people, including 200,000 former Baltimoreans who have fled to the suburbs since 1970 -- be that wrong? Can it really be that I'm in greater mortal danger in staid old Glyndon than I would be in Upton?

The answer obviously is no, though the city police department's office of planning and research stresses that that's not a fair comparison because the neighborhoods are so dissimilar.

A comparison of other county/city neighborhoods yields different answers. Cockeysville, for example, is statistically more dangerous than West Arlington or Hamilton.

As far as your chances of actually getting killed or injured in the city, "They're not statistically higher than any place else," an officer in the department says.

For one thing, the number of homicides (325 last year) accounts for a tiny fraction of the city's crimes. Moreover, most city murders are drug-related, and most victims are done in by people they know.

Stay out of bad neighborhoods and away from drug dealers and thugs, and chances are you'll survive the city to old age.

Of course, security involves more than staying alive. From January to September 1995, the city recorded 12,423 breaking-and-enterings.

Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard, Harford, Cecil, Frederick and Queen Anne's counties combined had slightly fewer than that. Nearly every friend I know who lives in the city has had their property broken into, vandalized or stolen at least once.

Some elementary math shows that roughly one in seven city residents has been a victim of a violent crime -- crimes that may not leave you bloodied or broken, but that make you feel as if you could find yourself in that state any day now. And so people are moving to the counties, where they feel safe.

But Northwest Environmental Watch found that suburban residents feel safer than they actually are because they drive more in the suburbs, and they drive faster.

The group found 2,000 people in the Northwest died and 168,000 were injured in car accidents in 1993 alone -- several times more than the number killed or hurt as a result of crime.

"Because of strong psychological reactions to . . . the fear of random, malicious acts, people tend to overestimate the risks of crime while dramatically underestimating the risks of driving," the report said.

I thought about all the city and county dwellers I know who have suffered bodily harm. A former editor who lives in Federal Hill was abducted outside his home. Other than him, I couldn't think of another person who was physically hurt at the hands of a criminal in the city.

Auto accidents

But I know many people who have been injured or worse in car crashes on suburban or rural roads. I can count, off the top of my head, a dozen former classmates who died on country roads.

My mother's boss' husband's pickup ran headlong into a tractor-trailer somewhere around Sykesville two or three years ago. A young man for whom I used to babysit died trying to avoid hitting a pedestrian on Kent Island.

I have never been mugged or assaulted, despite working downtown for years, but I have been hurt in two suburban auto accidents, one a fairly serious crash on twisty, turny Coon Club Road in Carroll County.

From 1993 to 1995 in Maryland, 1,325 people were killed in car crashes and another 107,772 injured. In 1995, 37,586 were killed or injured -- as many as were robbed, raped, murdered, assaulted or had their houses broken into in Baltimore.

None of this will stop people from leaving the city. When you start to hear gunshots within spitting distance of your child's bedroom, you're willing to trade that risk for the dangers of suburban driving.

But recognize that for what it is: a trade-off. Not a magical transportation to a place where accidents and anguish hardly ever happen.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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