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February 06, 2004

The illusion of safety

Carlie Brucia is dead, an innocent Sarasota kid abducted and murdered. The news across the US is full of the story, in part because her abduction was caught on a security video camera. It's a horrifying and banal video, and the news folks are milking it, as usual. We'll be back with more repeats of the video after this word from Swiffer(TM).

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy dicusses the fact that few kids walk to school anymore. There are plenty of cited reasons for this: dispersed, non-walkable communities, cold weather in the north (though I survived the usual uphill-both-ways walk to kindergarten in New York State in the 1960s), increased air pollution, no lockers at schools to hold heavy textbooks which must thus be taken home each night.

But for those kids who could feasibly walk to school, parental concerns about abduction are a primary reason they don't. A commenter to Kieran's post puts it as almost any parent might:

Don’t discount heightened awareness (if not increased incidence) of abduction/molestation.

I have a beautiful 7 year old girl. If you also have children and you have (1) seen that footage of Jamie Bulger being abducted prior to his murder and/or (2) read Ian McEwan’s Child in Time, you’ll know that the dread won’t permit you to take any chances whatsoever. Not on a daily basis anyway.

My friend Lee Ayrton, prompted by a comment on Carlie Brucia in another venue, did some digging and came up with some figures for stranger abductions of children in the US:

There are 72.6 million children in the USofA.

According to The FBI's National Press Office the number of non-parental
child abduction cases it opened was:

115 for 1998
134 for 1999
106 for 2000
93 for 2001

Roughly half of the above ended in murder. 50 is a very small fraction
of 72.6 million.

Indeed. That's roughly a one in 1.45 million chance.

Intrigued by what Lee found, I did a little digging of my own. Turns out that each year in the US, around 600 children die while riding in vehicles during school commute hours. [PDF file.]

In other words, it is twelve times more likely that your child will die this year in the school bus or in your SUV on her way to or from school than at the hands of a kidnapping stranger. And that's not exactly fair to the kidnappers: Lee's statistics aren't limited to the school commute, but include kids whisked out the window in the middle of the night.

Of course, about 200 kids die in the US each year hit by cars while walking or biking to school, so keep lobbying for those sidewalks. And drive carefully.

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It is difficult to know what to do as a parent. Walking to and from school is a good exercise and a way of starting independence skills. One thinks one is doing the right thing until an abduction story like this hits the news leaving parents in doubt. The statistics put such dangers into perspective however. We have a good system of sidewalks here - are they not as good in the US?

Posted by: Jenny at February 7, 2004 02:02 PM
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It's so much worse, though, to lose a child to torture and murder than to lose one to accident. They're not equivalent experiences. Not that I've ever lost a child. But of close friends dead -- one raped and murdered by a stranger, the other killed in a car accident -- I made peace with the accidental death within weeks, but the murder's still an open wound, twenty-five years later, and I doubt it will close in this lifetime.

I do wish that people would "do the numbers" more often and learn to distinguish between dangers that are actually likely and dangers that just happen to seize the imagination.

Posted by: dale at February 8, 2004 05:10 AM
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Chris, thanks for adding some sanity to the interpretation of emotioanlly-loaded statistics. As in the Stephen Jay Gould article you sent me on cancer deaths, we all need to know when we're being manipulated or when our fear makes us draw errneous conclusions. I say that as a person who walked to school every day of her life.

Posted by: beth at February 8, 2004 02:17 PM
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For anyone who's interested, I referenced this essay toward the end of a lengthy (even for me) entry on "Monsters of God" in my blog Via Negativa. (The conclusion, which includes the reference, is repeated in Monday's post for those lacking the time/patience to read the whole thing.) Most of the points are unoriginal and will be well known to readers of Faultline; it is intended as a possibly useful synthesis, nothing more.

Posted by: Dave at February 9, 2004 06:49 AM
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