The ‘Burbs: Extremely Safe or Especially Dangerous?

Long Island is safe. So safe that police recruits are flocking to the island’s two counties, according to an article in last Tuesday’s New York Times:

High pay coupled with low crime rates make a
coveted Long Island job "like winning the lottery in law enforcement,"
said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John
Jay College. Nassau [County] has the lowest crime rate in the nation of
any place with more than one million people, and Suffolk is not far
behind.

Long Island is dangerous. So dangerous that "After a deadly day on Long Island roads," Newsday reported last Wednesday:

Sen. Charles Schumer is calling for a safety
audit of roadways in Nassau and Suffolk, which have more fatal
accidents than any other county in the state.

A decade ago, Northwest Environment Watch (now the Sightline Institute) published a memorable report
showing that violent deaths were less common in Seattle than in the
surrounding suburbs. The author of this myth-buster, Alan Durning, took
the novel but logical step of combining traffic fatalities with
homicides and found fewer violent deaths (per million people) in the
central city. It wasn’t that city drivers were saner. Rather, city
dwellers spent less time driving than suburbanites, giving them fewer
opportunities to kill themselves or other Seattle residents on the
roads, which more than offset the city’s higher homicide rate.

A similar calculation for New York City and Long Island, using 2005 data, likewise upends the conventional wisdom. Per
million people, Long Island had 51 fewer homicides (16 vs. 67), but 50
more traffic fatalities (89 vs. 39), than New York City. In terms of
total violent deaths, the difference between the Big Apple and Long
Island – 105 deaths per million people in the City, 104 on the Island –
is statistical noise.

What this means for our police, I’m
not exactly sure. But perhaps it can lay to rest, once and for all, the
myth that violent deaths stop at the city line. Indeed, if recent
trends continue, the risk-averse may start pulling up stakes from
Lindenhurst and hunting for a house in Lefferts Gardens.

Combined homicides + traffic fatalities per million, 2005
Richmond (S.I.) 74
New York (Manhattan) 86
Nassau 87
Queens 94
Suffolk 120
Kings (Brooklyn) 123
Bronx 127

Download the spreadsheet Komanoff created to derive this data.  

Photo: klauskinski/Flickr 

  • This is very compelling.

    Would you:

    1) Tell us where the data came from and
    2) Show us the component parts of the per-county numbers?

  • This is something my wife (from the Boston suburbs) and I (from Park Slope) have talked about often. Her response — and I think that it’s reasonable — is that 12 homicides are scarier than 12 deaths by car crash, since they are backed by evil intent. (Feel free to argue the evilness of driving a hummer to work)

    Given this perception, I’d say there would have to be a much higher than 1:1 ratio of suburb:city violent deaths for it to have an emotional impact on the average suburban dweller.

    In the meantime, I will feel secure in knowing that I’m not risking my life every day on my way to work (except that I got hit by a car riding my bike to work last week!)

  • Coincidentally, my wife had a big delay in picking up our son from daycare yesterday because the building on Baltic Street near Hoyt was roped off with police tape. Two doors down a guy had been murdered. People were rumoring that his brother did it. His feet were sticking out from under a blanket on the front stoop.

    And yet, safety-wise, I’m still way more concerned about crossing Third and Fourth Avenue with him on the back of the bike….

  • The academic William Lucy of the University of Virginia has done ground breaking research on this subject for about two decades. He has shown over and over that suburbanites are usually at greater risk of dying “violently” than inner-city residents. In one memorable calculation, if memory serves, he showed that a resident in the occupied territories in Israel/Palestine was safer than a resident of a Washington DC suburb. But that’s my memory of the study. You can find out a lot of him and his work on the web, including his recent book “Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs.”

  • Steve — I’ve posted a brief spreadsheet with all the numbers, on http://www.komanoff.net. Navigate to the “Cars I” page (“Who Owns the Streets”). First item listed. — CK

  • Thanks for the spreadsheet link, Charles — and nice looking site 😉

    Something else to keep in mind is that while death by car is pretty much random (today’s headline notwithstanding), murders and homicides are more likely to perpetrated by someone who knows the victim. So if your acquaintances are people that are less than likely to try to kill you, your chances of being murdered go down (let me know if you figure out how to evaluate people reliably).

  • Steve

    Nick, I take your post may have been partly in jest. But if you look specifically at kids (as in the post immediately after this one), the “accidental” motor vehicle death rate is much lower in NYC than nationally. Most of the folks I know who head out to ‘burbs for safety reasons say they are doing so for their kids, not for themselves (although the cost of living in the City, not safety, is likely the key driver). Plus the homicide rate for urban kids is lower than the national average as well.

  • AD

    Charlie – thank you for bringing attention and clarity to this important and fascinating issue.

  • We should also bear in mind that homicides are not as evenly distributed through the population as automobile crashes…you do have some control over your chances of being murdered…like not associating with criminals.

  • That’s sort of why the murder a few doors down from our kid’s daycare center didn’t freak us out all that much. The victim and the perpetrator knew each other, or so we heard. It wasn’t just a completely random act of mayhem the way car crashes seem to be.

    Though, did you see in the papers yesterday the story about the woman who used her SUV to kill her boyfriend?

  • Aaron — If the NYPD follows its standard practice, the SUV-used-to-kill-boyfriend incident will be classed, appropriately, as a homicide rather than a traffic fatality. — CK

  • Paul

    Great article.

    It is also true that car crash fatalities are not completely random. More fatalities occur at night and on the weekends due to drunken drivers than at other times of the day. Theoretically, you can reduce your chances of being killed in a car by not going out on the weekends (though it doesn’t sound like much fun). However, children generally are not out at this time of night, so they may be less likely to be killed by car accidents.

    I wonder if anybody has stats on car fatalities by age.

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