Are runners likely to be targets of violent crime?

Posted by Dave on October 23, 2013 | Comments Off

As the days get shorter, I hear more and more concerns about safety from crime during runs, both in online forums and from my running friends. Soon, for many of us, it will be impossible to go for a run outside of normal working hours without running in the dark. Runners, especially women, are concerned about the possibility of being attacked when running on dark, isolated trails and greenways.

But how significant are those concerns? When we hear of a case like the Central Park Jogger or the more recent murder of a runner in Ohio, are we terrified because it’s an example of an all-too-common occurrence, or is it only surprising because attacks like this are rare?

I decided to look into crime statistics to see if I could parse out the actual danger runners face when heading off into the darkness. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Justice, while it does track violent crime nationwide, doesn’t have a readily-accessible statistic for attacks on runners. If any readers have better numbers than those I’m about to present, I’d love to hear from you, but for now, what I can offer are a few thumbnail calculations that may help you understand how much risk you might face by going out for a solo run in the dark.

This report gives some good data on crime in the US, and we can use it to get a rough sense of the crime dangers runners may face. In 2012 there were 12,765 murders in the US; 9,917 of the victims were male and 2,834 were female. That means that the average American had a .0004 percent chance of getting murdered that year.

But most murders are committed by people who know their victims. The random guy jumping out from behind a bush is responsible for relatively few murders. Indeed, only 1,557 of the 12,765 murders in 2012 were committed by strangers. When you limit the murders to the categories likely to affect runners (e.g. not bar-room brawls or gang wars), the number drops below 400, or about one in 100,000. And again, runners are likely to be only a portion of these cases.

That said, people aren’t just worried about getting murdered. Rape is a serious concern as well, especially for women. The numbers of rapes are much larger, as this report shows. In 2009, there were 327,600 reported cases of sexual assault of women in the US. That means an average woman had a 0.2 percent chance of being sexually assaulted that year — over 1,000 times the likelihood of being murdered.

Again, however, the “random guy jumping out from behind a bush” sort of rape is much rarer. Seventy-eight percent of assaults were committed by someone known to the victim. Less than 14 percent of rapes were committed in open areas like parks and greenways (the numbers we have in this report combine “locations such as an apartment yard; a park, field, or playground not on school property; a location on the street other than that immediately adjacent to home of the victim, a relative, or a friend; on public transportation; in a station or depot for bus or train; on a plane; or in an airport.”).

It’s not necessarily valid to suggest that we can combine the “stranger rape” percentage with the “open space” percentage to get a percentage of rapes committed by strangers in open spaces, but that gives us a figure of 3 percent. I think it’s reasonable to guess that less than 3 percent of all rapes are this sort of “random guy jumping out from behind a bush” attack. Even so, that’s still a pretty large number: about 10,000 sexual assaults per year. It would mean that women face a 0.006 percent chance of being attacked in this way each year, or more than 35 times their chance of getting murdered in a similar sort of attack. And let’s not forget that most rapes go unreported (though I suspect more of the “random attack” rapes are reported than rapes by acquaintances), so this may be a significant source of danger for women.

But how does this compare to other dangers runners might face, such as getting hit by a car? Once again, it’s difficult to find statistics just for runners, but we can find statistics on pedestrian deaths and injuries in car crashes. In 2010, 4,279 pedestrians were killed in car crashes, and 70,000 were injured. Male pedestrians had a .0019% chance of dying in a car crash and females had a .0008% chance. That means, if our thumbnail estimates are correct, female runners could be as much as 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted while running than dying in a car crash. They are, however, somewhere around 4 times as likely to be injured in a car crash than to be sexually assaulted.

Of course, these estimates could be off by a lot! We don’t know what portion of pedestrians are runners, and whether runners are more or less likely to get hit by cars than walkers. We don’t know what portion of “open space” rapes really affect runners. That said, these thumbnail estimates definitely demonstrate that women should be concerned about the possibility of a sexual assault while running. While the biggest danger is probably injury in a car crash, women runners are almost certainly more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than killed in a car crash.

I wish we had better data for women about the safest places to run. While it might seem that less-traveled greenways and trails would be the most dangerous places, perhaps attackers stay away from these areas because there aren’t many potential victims. Again, if any readers have access to additional data that might help shed light on this issue, I’d appreciate hearing from them.

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