City safer than the 'burbs?
May 12, 2002
BY CHRIS FUSCO STAFF REPORTER
Julieanna Lauer viewed herself as a "regular suburbanite"--the mom of a softball-playing 12-year-old who lived in a nice house in a safe, quiet neighborhood.
"It was very rural-like. Pretty," she said of her three-bedroom ranch in northeast Will County.
So when her daughter went to a nearby friend's house for a sleepover in May 1996, Lauer thought she had no reason to worry.
She was wrong.
Courtney Lauer sneaked out with some other girls to meet a boy late at night. They were walking down a narrow, wooded road in Crete Township when a Chevrolet Blazer plowed through, killing Courtney and her friends Sheena Acres, 12, and Cari Sanaghan, 11.
"You think that it couldn't happen here," Julieanna Lauer said. "It could, and did."
And it happens more than you might think, a new study concludes.
Traffic fatalities are so common in the far suburbs that, even if you add in murders by strangers, people who live there run an equal or greater risk of being killed than people who live in or near big cities, said William H. Lucy, an urban and environmental-planning professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
His analysis of eight metropolitan areas, titled "Danger in Exurbia," attempts to debunk the conventional wisdom that cities are dangerous while more rural--and usually growing--suburbs are safe.
In reality, inner suburbs in DuPage and Cook counties are the safest, he concludes, with Chicago ranking not that far behind. But people are being drawn to the outer suburbs, lured by affordable housing, new construction and open space.
McHenry and Will counties each grew by more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. By contrast, suburban Cook grew by about 7 percent.
"Lots of people have been leaving the inner suburbs and moving farther out," Lucy said. "To the extent people are making decisions based on safety, they're really making a miscalculation."
At least one outer-suburban leader finds that preposterous.
"When there's someone from Chicago that moves to Morris, this is heaven," said Morris Mayor Richard Kopczick, whose city of 12,000 is the Grundy County seat. Kopczick was appalled to learn that Grundy County was ranked the most dangerous place in northeastern Illinois and fifth most dangerous of 69 counties and cities.
"I go to bed at night with my doors unlocked," he said. "How many people in the city of Chicago can say that?"
"You're going to label a community more or less dangerous based on a traffic accident?" asked McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren, whose county had a danger rate just slightly behind Chicago's. "What about sexual assault, armed robbery, battery, auto theft, burglary?"
Lucy has heard that argument before. His analysis, he says, measures danger not in terms of the potential for people to be victims of a crime, but strictly in terms of the potential that they will be killed because of where they choose to make their home.
To calculate danger rates, the study used traffic fatality numbers plus statistics on "homicides by strangers." The latter, Lucy said, is the fairest way to measure a person's chances of being murdered because it eliminates cases where the killer is acquainted with the victim.
"If you're going to be killed by your spouse, where you live is not going to make much of a difference," he said.
Lucy and an assistant counted the number of murders by strangers and traffic crashes in each county and city in the study between Jan. 1, 1997, and Dec. 31, 2000. They averaged the totals and used the 2000 census to generate death rates per 10,000 people.
Chicago, based on the study's calculations, had 0.5 random murders per 10,000 people and 0.9 traffic deaths, for a danger rate of 1.4. Grundy, Kendall and DeKalb counties had virtually no random murders, but all of them had higher danger rates than Chicago because of traffic crashes.
The less populated the suburban area, the greater the risk of death, Lucy said.
"Low-density counties are the most dangerous, and that's mostly because speed kills," he said. "People are going farther and faster on more dangerous roads. There are more accidents in the city, but they are fender benders. Both pedestrians and vehicle occupants die at high speeds."
Melissa Bakel, 29, isn't surprised by the study's findings. She grew up in Kendall County and lived in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood between 1995 and 1999. She then moved back to her hometown of Yorkville after getting engaged. She still lives there with her husband, Damen, 29, and son Brayton, 19 months.
When she lived in the city, Bakel taught at Irving Elementary School on the Near West Side. Some days, she took the bus and train. Other days, she drove.
Rarely did she feel unsafe.
The perception by some people that the city is more dangerous is "a misconception," Bakel said. "Being aware of your surroundings and having a good head on your shoulders" is what's most important.
"There's a much better chance of something severely happening to you in a traffic accident than living in the city," she said. "Of course, it's going to depend on the area you live in."
In Morris, Kopczick said he thinks Grundy County's smaller population skewed the results of the University of Virginia study. He's hard pressed to believe that a county of just 37,500 people is more than twice as dangerous--even on a per capita basis--as Chicago. "I would much rather live here," he said.
It's possible Kopczick is right, but a year-by-year look at the data would be needed to prove his theory, said Tom Smith, of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. He noted other possible flaws: People don't always die in the counties where they make their homes, and the presence of interstate highways--traveled by motorists from all over--could be inflating traffic fatality rates.
Chicago police declined a request to comment.
Nygren, the McHenry County sheriff, said the study fails to accurately measure danger. Still, it makes a few good points.
"He's correct about the automobile safety," Nygren said. "Rural does not equal safe. Rural can equal very dangerous if you drive inattentively."
Julieanna Lauer knows that all too well. The man who hit her daughter and drove away was arrested and sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison. He was released in about a year.
People moving out to new subdivisions shouldn't assume they and their families will be safe, said Lauer, 36, who now lives in Tinley Park with her three children. At the same time, she doesn't know if there's much that families can do to stop tragedies like the one that took her daughter.
"We were all good parents, and they were all good kids," she said. "I had Courtney immunized against everything available. We did fire drills.... I told her, 'Don't walk on the street at night.'
"You do everything you can, and it still happens."