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What Do We Mean By “Safe”?

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When we think about planning for safe communities, we need to start by asking two basic questions. What do we mean by safe? And what do we mean by dangerous?

For the past twelve years, Morgan Quitno, a national research and publishing company has released its annual Safest and Most Dangerous Cities reports. These reports enjoy widespread media coverage. But Morgan Quitno only looks at several crime categories — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft — to determine, as the report puts it, “which cities and metropolitan areas were safest and most dangerous.” Is an exclusive focus on crime the best way to measure how “safe” our communities are?

University of Virginia planning professor William H. Lucy has instead focused on crime and on another aspect of safety: motor vehicle accidents. Lucy measured rates of fatal motor vehicle accidents (a sadly common occurrence) and rates of homicide-by-stranger (rare, but a crime widely feared). A startling pattern emerged: the most dangerous parts of the metro areas were the most rural, exurban sectors. For example, rural Grundy County, Illinois (population just over 37,000) was, by Lucy’s measure, more dangerous than Cook County (Chicago). Why? Because the death-by-auto rate was three times higher than the rate in Cook County.

Lucy’s research provides an important service to planners by highlighting that while crime is the danger that preys most on Americans’ imaginations, there is more to safety and danger than just crime.

How can planners make for safer communities? One step is to scrutinize the way our communities are designed and laid out. Planners and public safety officials must look through the other’s lens to learn more about what’s making the community safer and more dangerous.

William Lucy’s research shows us that the single most important thing we can do to increase the safety of communities is reduce the risk of high-speed automobile accidents. The high-speed two-lane local roads and wide arterial roads common to outer suburban and rural areas are the riskiest for motorists and pedestrians.

Seventy-seven percent of fatal auto accidents occur at high-speed in accidents on rural roads. In addition, in many of the fast-growing suburban and exurban regions of the country, the rate of pedestrian fatalities is going up, even though fewer people are walking. According to an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials sponsored report, “a pedestrian hit at 40 mph has an 85 percent chance of being killed, while at 20 mph, the fatality rate is only 5 percent.” The danger is exacerbated by the fact that these roads — located in increasingly residential areas — often lack adequate aprons, sidewalks, and crosswalks.

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