University of Virginia Study Reveals the Dangers of Travel in Virginia

January 27, 2009

January 27, 2009 — Contrary to popular belief, cities are safer than suburbs and rural areas, according to a new study released at the University of Virginia.

For people who travel from home to work, shop, recreate, attend school and engage in other activities, central cities and small cities in Virginia are the safest, said William H. Lucy, Lawrence Lewis Jr. Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning.

"Real estate surveys report that neighborhood safety is the most important single influence on where home buyers purchase residences," Lucy said. "Most people think about crime when they think about neighborhood safety. But the greatest danger of leaving home is from traffic injuries and fatalities. This research demonstrates that the danger of leaving home is much greater in low-density suburbs and exurbs than in higher-density cities and inner suburbs."

He analyzed traffic fatalities and homicides by strangers in Virginia from 2003 through 2007, using data supplied by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the State Police. Death rates were based on number of fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Tabulating traffic fatalities is the best method of measuring dangers associated with living outside cities, Lucy said.

He examined only homicides committed by strangers, he said, because those murders are more likely to happen when the victim is going about routine business outside the home, perhaps in proximity of a dangerous area.

State overview

About 30 percent of Virginia's annual traffic fatalities from 1978 through 2007 occurred in single-vehicle crashes. In 2007, persons age 16 to 25 accounted for 29 percent of traffic deaths. Left-hand turns across traffic are the most dangerous driving maneuver. High speeds and alcohol use are also related to traffic deaths.

During the five-year study period, annual traffic deaths ranged from a low of 922 in 2004 to a high of 1,026 in 2007. Traffic injuries were about 50 times the death rate, ranging from 49,138 in 2007 to 52,083 in 2006.

For homicides, the low was 390 in 2004 and the high was 416 in 2003.

Cities that often are considered dangerous, like Richmond and Norfolk, ranked 19th and 30th in the number of traffic and homicide-by-stranger deaths among the 49 metropolitan-area jurisdictions included in the ranking.

The 10 safest jurisdictions were eight cities — Manassas Park, Falls Church, Alexandria, Manassas, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Virginia Beach and Colonial Heights — and two counties, Arlington and Fairfax.

The 10 most dangerous jurisdictions were low-population-density counties: in order, Charles City, Clarke, New Kent, Dinwiddie, Greene, Goochland, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Prince George and Campbell.

The most dangerous city was Suffolk, the city with the lowest population density in Virginia, but it was still safer than 15 counties.  Besides the 10 counties above, the other five more dangerous counties were Pittsylvania, Botetourt, Frederick, Hanover and Powhatan (tables 1 to 5).

Similar results occurred for other time periods. For the 30 years from 1978 to 2007, the 10 most dangerous jurisdictions, in order, were counties: Charles City, New Kent, Goochland, Dinwiddie, Botetourt, Prince George, Fauquier, Greene, Pittsylvania and Clarke. Richmond was the 25th-most dangerous jurisdiction and Norfolk was 28th (tables 6 to 9).

In each metropolitan area, central cities and other small cities were among the safest jurisdictions. This pattern was especially clear in the smaller metropolitan areas.

Of the 49 jurisdictions in seven Virginia metropolitan areas studied from 1978 through 2007, those with fewer than 200 residents per square mile in 1990 were most dangerous and the high-density jurisdictions were safest, from Danville with about 1,200 persons per square mile to Alexandria's more than 7,000 (Table 5).

The rankings are influenced mainly by traffic fatalities. Virginia's average annual traffic death toll was 959 from 2003 through 2007. The annual average of homicides was 414.

"One's own residence was the most frequent single location" of homicides, Lucy said. "But most of these homicides were committed by people who knew the victim, usually family members, friends or acquaintances."

Lucy estimates that based on data reported in the 1990s, that an average of 15 percent of homicides in Virginia were committed by strangers. Less densely populated counties still rank as the most dangerous places for stranger homicides, with 12 counties more dangerous than Richmond from 2003 through 2007 (Tables 10 to 13).

Charlottesville area

From 2003 through 2007, Charlottesville was about three times safer than Albemarle County, four times safer than Fluvanna and six times safer than Greene. From 1978 through 2007, Charlottesville was nearly four times safer than Albemarle and Fluvanna and five times safer than Greene.

Lynchburg area

Lynchburg, from 2003 through 2007, was about two times safer than Amherst County and four times safer than Campbell County. From 1978 through 2007, Lynchburg was two times safer than Amherst and Campbell.

Danville area

Danville was three times safer than Pittsylvania County from 2003 through 2007 and two-and-a-half times safer from 1978 through 2007.

Roanoke area

The city of Roanoke was more than two times safer than Botetourt County from 2003 through 2007 and somewhat safer than Roanoke County. From 1978 through 2007, the city of Roanoke was three times safer than Botetourt and slightly safer than Roanoke County.

Richmond area

In the larger metropolitan areas, a similar but more complex pattern occurred. Richmond's traffic fatality and homicide by stranger rate from 2003 through 2007 was higher than the rates in Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Chesterfield, Henrico and Petersburg, but lower than rates in Charles City, New Kent, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Prince George, Hanover and Powhatan counties. In Charles City, New Kent, Dinwiddie and Goochland, the rates were two to three times higher than in Richmond.

From 1978 through 2007, the same results held true, except that Petersburg was slightly more dangerous. During each five-year period, Richmond was safer than at least seven counties.

Hampton Roads area

The cities of Virginia Beach and Hampton were the safest jurisdictions from 2003 through 2007. Suffolk was the most dangerous jurisdiction, followed by Gloucester. Norfolk was in the middle, with Suffolk, Gloucester, York County, James City County and the city of Chesapeake more dangerous and Virginia Beach, Hampton, Portsmouth and Newport News safer.

Results were similar for 1978 through 2007. Virginia Beach and Hampton were safest; Suffolk and Gloucester were most dangerous. Norfolk was in the middle, tied with Chesapeake and with four more dangerous and four safer jurisdictions.

Northern Virginia

Among the larger jurisdictions, the city of Alexandria was safest from 2003 through 2007, followed by Arlington and Fairfax counties. The most dangerous jurisdictions were Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick and Spotsylvania counties. Similar results occurred from 1978 through 2007, when Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax were the safest large jurisdictions and the most dangerous jurisdictions were Fauquier, Clarke, Spotsylvania and Frederick, in that order.

For information, contact William Lucy at 434-295-4453 or whl@virginia.edu.

— By Jane Ford