Monday, September 15, 2014

Are rural areas really "safer" than urban areas?

Watching Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary, “Brother’s Keeper”, brought to mind the two conflicting stereotypes of crime in rural America. On one hand is the stereotype of a quiet, pastoral countryside where crime is so rare people can afford to leave the house without even locking the door. Growing up this is the stereotype I was exposed to with the re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show in the sleepy, practically crime free town of Mayberry. On the other side of the coin is the image lawlessness and of “rednecks” or “white trash” committing daily acts of crime. However, it is difficult to really determine which, if either, of these perceptions is true. Are rural areas really inherently safer than urban areas, or are they really not as different as our stereotypes might lead us to believe? 

The belief that crime is less frequent in rural areas is supported by Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), created by the FBI, that presents crime by type and population group. According to this FBI database, violent crime is significantly higher in urban areas than it is in nonurban areas as is property crime such as burglary. Depending on how the FBI is classifying metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas this may simply be a result of a higher concentration of people leading to higher crime rates. But this still doesn’t exactly tell us whether rural areas are safer than urban areas.

Even though cities have higher rates of crime and murder, a new study has found that overall, urban areas are safer than the rural areas. This study by researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, is the first to look at overall death rates for all sorts of injuries (crashes, gunshots, drownings, falls, poisonings, even animal attacks) across the nation, rather than for selected areas or specific injuries. This study also separated intentional injuries/deaths from accidental ones. Although the study conceded that rates of homicide and crimes such as robbery are indeed higher in urban areas, it challenged the common stereotype that urban areas are inherently more dangerous than rural areas. The most rural counties had the highest rate of fatal injuries -- 74 deaths per 100,000 residents -- compared with 50 deaths per 100,000 in the most urbanized counties. This study also suggested that rural counties may be deadlier than their urban counterparts due to the lack and inadequacy of trauma care and health care in rural America.

The study done by UPenn and the Children’s Hospital provided an interesting and important juxtaposition to the common perception of rural areas as “safer” than urban areas. However, “safety” encompasses much more than just the typical ideas of crime. Simply looking at rates of crime doesn’t tell us much about relative safety in an area, particularly in today’s more technologically advanced world. In a study done by the National Institute of Justice it was indicated that patterns of rural crime indicate both the exporting of urban problems to rural areas as well as unique problems. Much of this probably has to do with the shrinking gap between urban and rural areas due to modern communication, transportation and other technological advancements. However, whatever the reasons behind the behind the findings in the study it remains clear that the concept of "safety" isn't nearly as cut and dry as television and other popular media might have us believe.


Kate Hanley said...

Interesting article, Moona. The study in question is available to UC Davis students and faculty through the VPN. I had to look at the sample size to convince myself that 50 v. 74 is statistically significant in this case. (They have a huge sample: data from 3,141 U.S. counties from 1999-2006, with 1,295,919 injury deaths.)

One interesting aspect about this study is that it doesn't control for spatiality. The authors seem interested in how distance from a trauma center plays into these statistics, but they were unable to control for it in this study.

Skimming through the data is also fascinating. If you're younger than 15 or older than 44, your risk of afatal firearm injury is significantly higher in a rural area than an urban area. But if you're 20-44, your risk is significantly higher in an urban area.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Skimming through the study is fascinating.

Kate said...

Really great article, Moona. I really appreciated the reference back to class. This article struck a particular cord with me, as I just finished reading "Round House" by Louise Erdrich. Although more pointed to the difficulties with the interaction between Native American and American legal system, your article really had me reflect on how the law is applied differently in urban vs. rural areas. Great post!

Ahva said...

Interestingly, the study's finding that rural areas are safer than urban areas was largely due to the rate of vehicle accidents in rural versus urban areas. To my surprise, deaths from vehicle accidents are much more common in rural areas, representing 28 deaths per 100,000 people. In urban areas, deaths from vehicle accidents represented only 11 deaths per 100,000 people. Given the sheer number of motor vehicles on the road and the traffic conditions in densely populated areas, these figures seem counter-intuitive. However, perhaps the less congested roads in rural areas lull residents into a false sense of security such that they drive at higher speeds or do not wear seat-belts. I, for one, have been guilty of both these practices during long drives on isolated highways. In view of these practices, and the fact that trauma centers are often sparsely located, the rate of deaths by vehicle accidents in rural versus urban areas starts to make more sense. Thank you for this post!

Desi Fairly said...

It's a shame that the study wasn't able to account for spatiality issues. Distance from a hospital certainly plays a major, if not the biggest, role in accident-related death rates. Similarly, I would like to see the data after health coverage was factored in as a variable. Experience of a treating physician/surgeon also probably contributes to the statistics.

Enrique Fernandez said...

I like the post, but the fact that the study doesn't control for spatiality makes it tough to conclude that the number of rural fatalities per 100,000 people gives any indication of the safety of a rural community. Also, the shortage of doctors in rural areas might be a reason rural counties experience a higher death rate of fatal injuries. But I'm one of those people blinded by the Hollywood stereotype that tells people rural areas are "safer."

Damon Alimouri said...

Interesting article, Moona. I've thought about this concept of the relative safety of rural or suburban areas for a while now.

It appears to me that, at least as far as the media seems to portray, so-called serial murderers tend to commit their crimes in rural areas, where they strew bodies and appendages across forests and fields. What is more, they tend to originate from rural and/or suburban areas. They are often middle-class white males. Notorious examples include Ottis Toole, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the Zodiac Killer.

I have also noticed that school massacres tend to occur in predominantly white, middle-class, and suburban (or rural areas). In fact, the suburban high school I attended faced its own version of the Columbine shootings a couple months ago.

Of course, urban areas are polluted with violent crime, however I find it is of a different nature. Urban violence stems from poverty, whereas the mass murders and massacres seen in rural or suburban areas stem from something else.

I believe this sort of violence stems from social maladies like alienation and an atomistic form of individualism. Loneliness, depression, and emphasis on pecuniary prosperity rather than human connection produce all kinds of sick people.

I often wonder (morbidly?) how many of these sorts of sick and potentially dangerous people inhabit quaint little Davis.

I'll end on a lighter note with this:

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