Not as dangerous as you think

Urban Chronicle

Statistics: A researcher has crunched the numbers, and they indicate that Baltimore may be as safe as - or safer than - the rest of the state.

January 25, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

WITH LAST YEAR'S decline in homicides, Baltimore has undeniably become a somewhat less dangerous place.

But the city might be even safer than the drop in homicides indicates - provided you take into account the higher rate of traffic deaths in most counties and the fact that the vast majority of homicides involve people who know each other or are connected with the drug trade.

Do that, and you find that Baltimore turns out to be only marginally more hazardous to live in or visit than many nearby suburbs - and less so than more distant places, such as Charles and Frederick counties.

That's the approach that's needed to draw the most accurate picture of the relative safety of urban areas, argues William H. Lucy, professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.

"You have to consider what you encounter when you leave your house to walk some place or drive some place," Lucy said in an interview.

"What do people perceive as impacting safety? Homicides would be one factor. It's less obvious that traffic fatalities are another."

Lucy has been analyzing traffic fatality and homicide data for Virginia for years.

In a recent article in Planning, the monthly magazine of the American Planning Association, Lucy noted that Richmond was considerably safer than generally believed. The combined homicide-by-stranger rate (15 percent of all killings) and traffic fatality rate of Richmond in the 1990s was less than that of nine nearby counties. The reason: far more deadly accidents occurred in outlying areas, where people travel farther, faster.

Applying Lucy's analysis to Baltimore and Maryland for last year yields similar, if not quite as striking, results.

Even with Baltimore's decline in homicides last year from 305 to 262, the city had far more killings than any other jurisdiction in the state. Prince George's County, with 70 homicides, down from 95 in 1999, was second; Baltimore County, with 33, was third.

But the difference in the number of homicides by strangers is far less striking, with Baltimore at 39, Prince George's at 11, and Baltimore County at 5.

And Baltimore's record of traffic fatalities is less grim than those of some other jurisdictions. According to preliminary data from the Maryland State Highway Administration, 49 people died in accidents on the city's roads last year, behind Prince George's (97), Baltimore (79) and Anne Arundel (51) counties.

Harford and Howard counties, with 28 traffic fatalities each, had more than half the number of deadly accidents that the city had, but they have only about 34 percent and 38 percent of Baltimore's population, respectively.

Combining the homicide-by-stranger rate with the traffic fatality rate, and adjusting for population, Baltimore turns out to be more dangerous than other major jurisdictions - but not by much.

The city had a combined rate of 13.9 per 100,000 people, only slightly higher than Prince George's at 13.8 and Harford at 13.3. Howard County's was 11.9 , Baltimore County's 11.6 and Anne Arundel County's 10.8.

Queen Anne's, Charles and Frederick counties - fast-growing exurban areas that recorded a handful of homicides but high traffic death rates - all have combined rates that exceed those of Baltimore.

To Lucy, these figures are important in understanding how safe places are, which influences everything from Smart Growth policies to suburbanization.

Lucy acknowledges that focusing on death rates, by cars or guns, might overlook the fact that many leave cities as much because of property crimes - break-ins, purse-snatchings, car thefts - as deadly ones. On the other hand, he says, high-speed automobile travel is far more dangerous than figures on traffic deaths suggest.

"Where you have traffic fatalities, you also have serious traffic-related injuries," he said.

One of those who is interested in Lucy's research is Michelle Garland of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to car travel.

Garland says her group is interested in replicating Lucy's research on a national scale to "debunk the myth that cities are extremely dangerous" and to encourage better planning.

Also interested is Tracy Gosson, director of the Live Baltimore Marketing Center, whose job to persuade people to put down roots in the city involves counteracting a decade or more of crime-related headlines and television images.

"I'm totally supportive of anything that bring perspective to these sensational crime statistics," she said. "[Interstate] 695 at 5 o'clock - that's dangerous."

Urban Chronicle, a look at some of the issues and events shaping Baltimore and its environs, will appear every other week.

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