Odds are your vacation will pass happily and harm-free, whether you spend it in Washington, D.C., or Wales. But before you relax entirely, consider your wallet, your car, your life insurance and these findings from a British government team that analyzed crime rates around Europe, North America and other places.
Its report, published on the Internet in June by the British government's Home Office (http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs/hosb601.pdf), shows that while the United States was enjoying steady decreases in crime through the late 1990s, some European countries were suffering through substantial increases, especially in two areas that might interest a traveler: violent crime and car thefts.
The U.S. is not spared entirely in the pictures the numbers paint: Washington, D.C., pops up as the homicide capital among the 35 cities in the report.
The report focuses on Europe but also includes figures from the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. As authors Gordon Barclay, Cynthia Tavares and Arsalaan Siddique note, comparisons like this can be misleading because different countries often define and count crimes in different ways. Most of these figures, gleaned from government authorities in nearly three dozen nations, are no fresher than December 1999.
To minimize those limitations, the authors focused on trends rather than raw numbers, and they offered no speculation on what might be driving those trends. I would never abandon a chosen destination because of these statistics alone. But there's plenty here to maybe inspire a bit more pre-trip preparation:
* Belgium, Greece and Portugal may be less restful than you thought. From 1995 through 1999, while overall reported crimes were falling 16% in the U.S., 10% in England and Wales, and 21% in Ireland, reported crime was increasing by 18% in Belgium, 14% in Greece and 11% in Portugal. (Keep in mind, however, that this is all relative. Belgium reported 857,445 crimes in 1999, among 10 million residents. The U.S. reported 11.6 million crimes, excluding arson and drug offenses, among 275 million residents.)
* Violence has been on the increase in Western Europe. In England and Wales, reports of violent crimes (including violence against persons, robbery and sexual offenses) increased 20% from 1995 through 1999. In France, incidents rose 31%. In Italy, they rose 37%. In Poland, 39%. In the Netherlands, 34%. In Switzerland (which had a low starting point, just 6,042 such incidents in a nation of 7.1 million), violent crimes increased 41%.
* Throughout Europe, there's reason to lock your car. From 1995 to 1999, thefts of motor vehicles increased an aggregate 7% in European Union countries, and the total number of snatched vehicles in 1999 alone totaled more than 1 million. But in several of the most heavily touristed countries, theft numbers were down. In England and Wales, vehicle thefts were down 27% from 1995 to 1999. In France, they were down 13%. In Germany, 46%. In Italy (with 25 million fewer residents than Germany but twice as many car thefts), 1999's total of 294,726 stolen vehicles was a 4% improvement on 1995's figure.
* For all its attractions, Washington, D.C., may be more lethal than you thought. Figures from 1997 to 1999 show a per capita homicide rate that's more than five times greater than New York's and 30 times greater than in the European Union. Washington's rate--50.82 homicides for every 100,000 residents--far surpassed other hot spots such as Pretoria, South Africa (27.47 per 100,000); Moscow (18.20); and Tallinn, Estonia (11.23). New York City's rate was 9.38. (Los Angeles County was not included in the study, but county law enforcement officials reported 956 slayings among 9.3 million residents in 1999, which would place the county somewhere between New York and Tallinn.)
In those Western European countries where violent crimes were up, homicide nevertheless remains a rarity. The European Union averaged 1.70 homicides per 100,00 residents from 1997 to 1999. If you add together all the homicides recorded during those years in London, Paris and Rome (775), you still fall short of the 802 homicides counted in Washington during the same time.
Before you cancel your White House tour and toss out those plane tickets: Readers may recall that in May I spent four days in Washington with 61 fifth-graders and their chaperons, encountering no crime. In fact, I came away thinking the city seemed notably cleaner than during my several previous visits over 20 years. In D.C., as in every other city and country covered in the survey, neither numbers alone nor one traveler's impressions tell the whole story. If you follow common sense, trouble probably won't find you.
But if you really want the numbers on your side, I direct your attention to the Mediterranean Sea. There, just south of Turkey, you'll find the island of Cyprus, where about 760,000 residents live on a dry, archeologically rich patch of land.