Dangerous ‘Burbs?

Matt Yglesias makes an interesting argument in his defense of raising kids in the cities:

No one wants their kids to grow up someplace dangerous, someplace where they’re likely to be killed, someplace like Washington, DC with the high murder rate, or Jerusalem with the suicide bombers. Nevertheless, the main killer of young people in the developed world is not murder (or terrorism) but automobiles. When you combine the murder rate with the car-related death rate, it turns out that American suburbs are more dangerous to children and teens than even the highest-crime cities.

The statistic is one that strikes me as implausible but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I’ve been able to come up with some tangentially-connected stats on urban vs. rural driving. For example:

According to a US General Accounting Office report in July 2001, rural local roads had the highest rate of fatalities per vehicle mile traveled of all types of roadways—over six times that of urban interstates. In 1999, over 25,000 fatalities occurred on rural roads across the U.S.; and that figure was 2.5 times greater than the fatality rate from accidents on urban highways in areas like Las Vegas, Miami, St. Louis, and Cleveland.

This disparity could be due to a host of factors, though, including the prevalence of commercial traffic, and doesn’t tell us about the unit of measurement we’re interested in (deaths per capita) since it focuses on the roads rather than the drivers. Nor does it relate specifically to teenagers.

Everything else I found on teen driving fatalities that looked credible was related to driving while intoxicated and I found nothing on the urban-suburban issue. Does anyone out there have useful cites on this?

Update/Asides: This old Whos’s Counting piece by John Allen Paulos doesn’t actually answer the question but is amusing, as is most of his work, on the issue of how poor most of us are at risk assessment.

Eric Miller makes the amusing argument that people who are going to get drunk a lot should move to the cities since one can walk home rather than drive drunk.

Of course, if you really want to drive drunk–and young–you should consider moving to Canada.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M. Murcek says:

    Boosters of urbanism will twist any statistic to try and bolster their arguments.

    Kids die in car wrecks most often because of inexperience. They don’t know you can’t go from 70mph to 0mph in 2 seconds. They don’t know you cannot negotiate that 90 degree curve at 90mph.

    Intoxicants and distractions in the car only make that bad situation worse.

    Many of the scenarios that result in the deaths of young drivers (speeding, racing one another, losing control on curves) are inherently impossible in urban settings.

    The argument comes down to “You can’t drown in a sandbox…” Sheesh.

  2. craig henry says:

    Agreed. Speed kills and it is easier to go fast in the suburbs or country than on big city streets or interstates.

    Also, the limited access highways around cities are built safer– fewer trees, fewer embankments, better guard rails. Roads in Red America are less dangerous. (No conspiracy, just economics and topography.

    A note about the stats– they don’t look at where you live but where you die. So, if you really want to be safe, you have to stay in NYC and travel by plane/train to other urban areas.

  3. DBL says:

    I used to live in NYC, and now live in a remote suburb. It seems pretty obvious to me, as the father of two teenagers, that suburban kids face risks that NYC kids do not, in particular, cars and drinking. Even without the drinking, put several kids in a car and you have a risky situation. Kids in NYC – at least those in Manhattan – do not drive, not at all, except in taxis, and so do not run those risks. I also think that drug abuse is just as prevalent in the burbs as in the city, although it may start a year or two later. The one risk that city kids face, that my kids do not, is that some gang or mugger will set upon them as they are walking home.

  4. Kate says:

    26 miles in 14 minutes, from a standing start to full stop.

    That was my record. In a ’73 Ford Maverick.