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Safer in the City? Statistics Don’t Lie, But They Can Obfuscate

Several readers sent me a link to a study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine that had some surprising results: They concluded that big cities are statistically safer than small towns.

This study, titled Safety in Numbers: Are Major Cities the Safest Places in the United States? [1] has a number of flaws. First, it treats deaths by intentional violence equally with accidental deaths and deaths related to the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. This is not quite fair, because the former are not nearly so avoidable as the latter. If I want to avoid most drunk driving accidents then I can simply abstain from drinking. (Unless of course, it is a drunk that hits my car, or me as a pedestrian.) That means that I can effectively excuse myself from being part of the statistics. But if I want to minimize my chance of getting robbed and shot to death, then I can only do so by changing my ZIP code. And if I want to avoid high speed traffic accidents, I can drive more conservatively. Again, that means that I can in part at least excuse myself from being part of the statistics, or at least lower my actuarial risk.

The “flattening” of volitional differences by the researchers also ignores the psychological impact of various forms of death. All families are of course aggrieved by the loss of a loved one. But consider this: What would be the quality of your sleep for the rest of your life be if your teenage daughter were killed: A.) In a simple highway traffic accident and you never saw her body, or B.) Your home was invaded by a gang, they tied everyone up, and then you witnessed your daughter being violated and then murdered? To a statistician, it is all the same. But to you and me, not all “injury-related” deaths are equal.

Another flaw is that while the University of Pennsylvania study narrowed in on trauma, it ignores lifestyle differences that can contribute to significantly longer life spans that would put then outside of statistical norms. A non-smoking, non-drinking rural person who drives conservatively, drinks pure water, breathes fresh air, eats veggies from his own garden, and who eats local trout and lean venison is probably going to be a “Statistical Outlier [2]“–that is, someone who defies the odds and lives to a ripe old age. And guess what: That is the very definition of a SurvivalBlog reader, or at least what he strives to be, and urges him to where he plans to live.

One other flaw is that the statistics are all based on the county of deaths occurrence, rather than the county of residence of the decedent. (Death certificates are filed in the place where someone assumes room temperature, rather than their Home of Record.) So this ignores neo-local deaths. I can assure you that there are plenty of them in The American Redoubt [3]. The populations of some towns in the Redoubt doubles each summer. Every year in our county, accidental deaths peak in the summer months. That is when the idiotic drivers from western Washington come here to “play.” (And that play often involves drinking and driving fast, or drinking and water skiing.) And then there is hunting season when, again, urbanites come here to release their Inner Idiot. Many of the deaths due to exposure and snowmobile accidents are neo-local. And the only negligent shooting death in recent memory involved out-of-state hunters. Many of these yahoos come from either Seattle or Portland.

Again, there is the flaw of throwing together intentional deaths with unintentional deaths, in drawing the report’s primarily conclusion. Granted, when you are dead, you are dead. But to say that it is more “risky” to live in the country where people often commute long distances at high speed versus in the Big City, where people commute short distances at low speed is not quite fair. Not when part of the offsetting risk of “injury-related” death risk in urban areas comes from instantaneous lead poisoning when you dare to step outdoors after dark. All things being equal, I’d rather face the risk of spinning out on black ice or the risk of a deer coming through my windshield than I would having a twitchy drug addict sticking a pistol in my face and saying: “Your money or your life.”

Notably, I found this proviso buried in the report: “We chose to exclude terrorist-related deaths, the majority of which are associated with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.” Well, well, that was convenient! When 3,000 people get whacked on a single day, it badly messes up your intention to show that cities are “safer”, doesn’t it? I have a news flash for them: Terrorists regularly target big cities, because that is where population and news cameras are concentrated. They don’t intentionally crash airliners full of screaming passengers into Kansas wheat fields. No! They aim for Manhattan skyscrapers. They don’t set off pressure cooker bombs at 5K Fun Runs in Lander, Wyoming. They choose events like the Boston Marathon, where there are huge crowds and more television reporters than you can count. And when they eventually get their hands on some nukes (and they will), they won’t be be shouting “Allahu Ahkbar” and pressing the button in Miles City, Montana. No, it will more likely be in Los Angeles or Dallas. So someday–most likely in the next 20 years–there will be a great big “Boom!” (or more likely simultaneous “booms” in multiple cities, given their proven modus operandi) potentially with millions of deaths. And that event will absolutely blow their statistics right out of the water. (Or should I say, into mushroom clouds.) Then, and only then, will the statisticians say to themselves: “Gee, maybe it is safer out in the boonies.”

I recently did some web wandering, and gathered some interesting murder statistics, from the most recent years available. (These are mostly 2010 stats.):

Honduras homicide rate: 91 per 100,000 people.

El Salvador homicide rate: 69 per 100,000 people.

Detroit, Michigan homicide rate 58 per 100,000 people.

Flint, Michigan homicide rate per 48 100,000 people.

Colombia homicide rate: 32 per 100,000 people.

Oakland, California homicide rate: 22 per 100,000 people.

Washington, DC homicide rate: 21.9 per 100,000 people.

Richmond, California homicide rate: 20.3 per 100,000 people.

Stockton, California homicide rate: 16.8 per 100,000 people.

Louisiana homicide rate: 11.2 per 100,000 people.

Jersey City, New Jersey homicide rate: 10.2 per 100,000 people.

New York City, New York homicide rate: 6.4 per 100,000 people.

Tennessee homicide rate: 5.8 per 100,000 people.

Chile homicide rate: 5.5 per 100,000 people.

Bolivia homicide rate: 5.3 per 100,000 people.

Ohio homicide rate: 4.1 per 100,000 people.

Montana homicide rate: 2.6 per 100,000 people.

Washington (state) homicide rate: 2.3 per 100,000 people.

Maine homicide rate: 1.8 per 100,000 people.

Boise, Idaho homicide rate: 1.5 per 100,000 people.

Wyoming homicide rate: 1.4 per 100,000 people.

Missoula, Montana homicide rate: 1.4 per 100,000 people.

Idaho homicide rate: 1.3 per 100,000 people.

Vermont homicide rate: 1.1 per 100,000 people.

Newport, Washington homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Condon, Oregon homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Rogue River, Oregon homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Lewiston, Idaho homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Moscow, Idaho homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Bonners Ferry, Idaho homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Bozeman, Montana homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Helena, Montana homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Cody, Wyoming homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

Newcastle, Wyoming homicide rate: 0 per 100,000 people.

It certainly sounds safer, in some respects, out in “The Wild West.”

As for me and mine, we keep our guns handy, and we’ll continue to primarily travel in a big, safe SUV with a massive “Deer Stopper” bumper, in which we carry both a trauma kit and an AED [4]. We’ll take our chances, living out in the country, thanks. – J.W.R.