Anyone who read my city meditations a while back may remember that one of my chief complaints was the coarseness of our language: for example, we often use the term “city” to refer only to the truly vast megalopolises, and use the term “suburb” to refer to an extremely wide variety of habitations. This recent post by Emily Badger on the Atlantic Cities blog illustrates the kind of confusion our typically sloppy language can introduce.

The piece’s title states its thesis: “You’re More Likely to Die a Violent Death in Rural America Than in a City.”

In one popular explanation for the mass exodus from urban America over the last several decades, people left the city because the city wasn’t safe. In suburban and rural America, by contrast, the cars drive slower down cul-de-sacs, random crime is less common, and gunfire is scarce. You’ve probably heard this before.

Here, however, is the data: Yes, homicide-related death rates are significantly higher in urban parts of the country. But that risk is far outweighed by the fact that you’re about twice as likely to die in a car crash in rural America than you are in the most urban counties. Nationwide, the rate of “unintentional-injury death” – car crashes, drownings, falls, machinery accidents and the like – is about 15 times the rate of homicide death. Add together all the ways in which you might die prematurely by intentional or unintentional injury (as opposed to illness), and your risk of death is actually about 22 percent higher in the most rural counties in America than in the most urban ones.

Notice that in the first paragraph quoted above “suburban and rural America” are lumped together — but are they lumped together in the statistics? Impossible to tell from the post: all the contrasts Badger makes are between the “most rural counties” and the “most urban counties” — where do suburban communities fit into this?

And it turns out that this isn’t journalistic reductiveness on Badger’s part: surprisingly, and disappointingly, the reductiveness belongs to the study she’s citing (PDF):

Study objectives: Many US cities have experienced population reductions, often blamed on crime and interpersonal injury. Yet the overall injury risk in urban areas compared with suburban and rural areas has not been fully described.

Not incidentally, that’s the only appearance of the words “suburb” or “suburban” in the report.

That most-rural/most-urban distinction that the study relies on is problematic in more than one way. Presumably Cook County, Illinois would count as one of the country’s “most urban counties” — but only about half the people in Cook County live in Chicago, the other half being suburban. How do the risks of violent death differ between Chicago and the other Cook County communities?

It’s possible — in fact, it seems intuitively likely to me — that in many (most?) suburbs people are safer from violent death than in city or country: less gun violence than in cities, less danger of dying in an accident than in rural areas (thanks to significantly higher concentration of trauma centers and ambulance and paramedic services). In that case the decision to move from the city to the suburbs for safety’s sake would be a perfectly rational one. But if we want to find out, we’re going to have to abandon the idea of lumping suburban and rural areas together in a single incoherent category.

UPDATE: Via Yoni Appelbaum, a study that goes into more detail about vehicular danger in various kinds of places.