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We often get questions asking about personal safety in various places. Some are travellers worried about organized violence/discontent, such as

Which parts of Southern Thailand are safe from violence?

Some are asking about general safety while traveling, perhaps as a Westerner in an area maybe not known for Western friendliness, such as

Which are safe and unsafe regions in Iran?

And then there are those more like the second, but less due to being "Western" and more simply a "tourist", such as

Is Casablanca totally safe?

(There was a better one than that, asking about a specific city, but I can't find it now)

And finally we have safety of the kind of "is it physically safe to ride this thing (sky-way, ferry, etc.), such as

How safe are cable cars?

I'm concerned about things like, a traveler/tourist should already know what to do, or not to do when visiting places, like cities. I can understand why a visitor to a large city might want knowledgeable advice about what districts to perhaps avoid, but how do we give them that information without a major discussion, since we can't know what the person considers fun adventurous, versus dangerous adventurous.

What if advice is given that, sure, that tram/ferry had issues in the past, but they are safe now, and there is yet another incident?

Finally, a war zone would be obvious, but for instance, hippietrail was asking about land travel through Pakistan into Iran. Many people say Iran is generally safe now for tourists, but as a Westerner (American), I have my doubts. It is not someplace I would ever think of going on vacation... or is it?

How can we safely (sorry) quantify safety?

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    Yeah this bugs me a bit too - safety is subjective. Look how terrified some people in the US have been about 'Africa' as a whole recently, yet if you know anything about it you know that Kenya, in terms of Ebola safety, is literally further than the width of the US from any affected areas. Safety is inherently subjective - indeed I think we've even closed some in the past that asked very subjectively like 'is it safe?'. I'm not sure yet how to address it though. – Mark Mayo Nov 11 '14 at 0:38
  • Also how do we prevent people from giving misleading information based on personal beliefs? In particular when the regions are so remote/closed-off that it's hard to verify someone's claim. I could say something like: that region in France is unsafe because full of French people. I would immediately be flagged. But what about such-and-such reason in this-and-that rural area of this-country is unsafe due to gun-wielding one-eyed doubloon-worshipping pirates? (I tried to keep this as politically correct as possible.) – JoErNanO Nov 11 '14 at 12:07
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I don't think difficulties in quantifying the risk or personal preferences are the real issues here. In principle, there is nothing stopping someone with enough information to provide some probabilities of accidents, kidnapping, robbery, etc. or comparison with other places and let the reader make his or her own decisions based on that.

I am more concerned about the fact that everything other travellers can offer is anecdotes. “I went there and nothing happened”, “I felt fine” or “I heard about this couple who were killed/abducted” are not worth much as evidence one way or the other.

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    True about the anecdotes. However that's what statistics are based on: samples. If ten people say I went there and nothing happened can you consider the place "safe"? I would say you would consider it safer than a place described as Cut-throat hell. by ten people. – JoErNanO Nov 20 '14 at 10:28
  • @JoErNanO Even a single person who either died or survived is indeed information. If you have nothing else to go by, then of course it makes sense to based your decision on that. But there is a famous quip: The plural of anecdote is not data. A sample is something else… – Relaxed Nov 20 '14 at 10:40
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    It depends on the "anecdote". If it's "a friend of a friend said it's dangerous" it's not much use. If it's "ten tourists were killed by terrorists and here's some references" then it's good. I'm not scared of Iran despite some people "having doubts". I'm scared of Pakistan because there are documented recent cases of targeted lethal attacks against foreigners/tourists/westerners in areas claimed elsewhere on our site to be "safe". – hippietrail Nov 20 '14 at 12:37
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I had an epiphany reading this question. Here the OP explicitly mentions what they consider is safe/dangerous, thus providing with more details and narrowing the scope of the question. What better way to quantify safety than to ask the OP to define and explain their own subjective criteria? Anything like I'm afraid of being robbed/kidnapped/force-fed-pizza. works.

Questions without these details could be flagged for closure as "Unclear what you are asking.".

  • Not sure I understand your point. Is this question an example of what not to do or something to emulate? It did specify explicitly what the OP means by unsafe, yet it was closed all the same… – Relaxed Jan 7 '15 at 9:53
  • @Relaxed In that question the OP does specify a few safety-related risks concerning train journeys. I feel however that the question still remains too broad: first off: it is unclear what 'etc' means here: held up, robbed, people kidnapped, etc; second the question might be too broad in that train safety in all the countries mentioned Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, etc might be very different. – JoErNanO Jan 7 '15 at 11:26
  • Are you really advocating closing questions because they use “etc.”? South-East Asia also seems like a reasonable scope, if there are major differences they can be mentioned in the answer. I think your standard is completely unreasonable and ultimately unhelpful. – Relaxed Jan 7 '15 at 13:04
  • @Relaxed No. I am advocating closing questions because they are too broad. Very much like TSE rules say. Please do explain me how asking OPs to specify what they deem safe in detail is unreasonable? – JoErNanO Jan 7 '15 at 13:10
  • Specifying what they deem safe is precisely what the OP did. Again, “I'm afraid of being robbed/kidnapped” is already what they wrote in the question. How much more explicit does it need to be? You are trying to dodge the issue by claiming that the question is somehow “broad” your only concrete objection seem to be that they added “etc.” at the end of an otherwise rather specific list… – Relaxed Jan 7 '15 at 13:18
  • @JoErNanO asking them to define safety makes it subjective. each person has their own view of 'safe'. So while I see what you're saying, I don't think it actually helps that much :/ – Mark Mayo Jan 8 '15 at 0:16
  • Great points. Someone could ask "I'm worried about being safe in Kansas. I heard about tornadoes - how likely is it I would get hit if I go to Wichita in August?" while another could ask "Are there violent street gangs in Wichita, Kansas? If so, which neighborhoods are known to be gang hotspots where gang members prey on tourists?" and we could answer them with meaningful data. – Robert Columbia Dec 24 '16 at 4:53
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There is no way to quantify safety "objectively", but that is not a problem here for one simple reason, question about safety are generally questions about certain fears in one's head, I can safely assume the main fears people have in their heads when asking such questions are either fear of death or fear of the unknown, and these two are somehow measurable since all humans have these fears built-in.

Whether the question is "How to cross Iran by land safely", "Are cable cars safe" or "Is Casablanca safe" all are generally about one thing:

How to do x without dying?

This is pretty much understandable, as long as the person who asks the question provides enough information to help him/her in assessing the situation, such as:

  1. Destination country/region
  2. Nationality
  3. Race or ethnic group
  4. The purpose of travel (tourism, voluntary work, etc.)

The above information is enough to assess the safety situation to a reasonable degree according to the current situation for a given country/region as things spread fast now in this era of Twitter and Facebook. For example, you can reasonably help someone in taking a decision to travel to Afghanistan if he was a white American.

Same thing goes for asking about transportation methods (airplanes, cable cars, trains, etc.), people are usually afraid to die, that's obvious. If these questions have extra information, especially the country/region where he/she plans to use the transportation method, this will usually be enough to assess the safety of that certain method in that certain country/region, as one transportation method can be very safe in Europe but absolutely not in other parts of the world.

The one downside about these questions is the answers to them are temporary as the situation can escalate in a matter of hours. Other than that, they are generally good questions and totally on-topic IMHO.

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    Well, also fears of being robbed, doing something without being attacked, or going somewhere without being kidnapped. But in general yes, I agree with you. – Mark Mayo Nov 20 '14 at 0:55
  • @markmayo Fear of being kidnapped is fear of death or fear of the unknown, I am sure your fear won't be about the kidnapping part itself, or about the menu your kidnapper will provide for you, or about being late if you get kidnapped.. Its purely fear of death. – Nean Der Thal Nov 20 '14 at 2:07
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    I'd be more concerned with fear of the treatment. I've heard of areas where kidnapping is fairly common for ransom, and you're not treated particularly well during this time. – Mark Mayo Nov 20 '14 at 2:31
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    Why try to shoehorn everything into this “fear of death” category? From my superficial reading of media reports, it seems maybe half or more of European people kidnapped in the Sahel area get back home alive (sometimes after years of isolation and poor treatment), so does that mean that a kidnapping counts for half a traffic accident? – Relaxed Nov 20 '14 at 9:05
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I have sometimes been wondering about some similar questions and even though I didn't know what to expect when I asked, the answers that satisfied me were telling how to culturally behave regarding some risk.

Let's take my example. I wondered about safety in South Africa. We can hear a lot about how some people live in gated communities, how it is supposedly unsafe. I still did not go and could not verify by myself but the answers I got and heard let me figure the risks and learned how people behaved about it. I heard that being robbed is a risk everyone takes on a daily basis. I heard that having the house robbed may also happen.

I still do not know how often that actually happens but what I understood is that unlike in the NYC subway, you do not use your brand new iPhone holding it with the tips of your fingers and yelling to it. I am using an exaggerating example but basically I could summarize an answer for the issue as there is a risk to be robbed, it happens to almost everyone living there at some point, so the precaution would be not to carry and show off expensive stuff (jewelery, electronics) and if that happens, let's get robbed but try to make sure you are not hurt.

To extend that to all cases, I would say that this would always be a cultural answer, i.e. not necessarily backed by pure facts (but statistics are very helpful). The safety of some place is not so much measured by how many people report getting robbed, or worst raped, but how people are expected to behave. It differs between locals add tourists, these being more or less wealthy than locals.

For safety of vehicles, it is harder. For most cases, it is a matter of statistics. It is very unlikely that you die on a plane but it can happen. In western societies, if you drive everyday or so, it is likely that you will have a car accident at least once in your life, but it does not mean you will get hurt. In some other countries, the roads might be way less safe, but it is always hard to measure : do people die/get hurt every 3-5 times they use a vehicle, once in their life, ... could be a way to address it. And obviously always mention the unlikely accident, i.e. there is always a risk.

And for war zone or such place, it is also hard to measure. I guess the ideal answer would be a local describing how to behave, once again, for example by dressing appropriately, not running, respecting the people you can see in the streets. I am particularly remembering going to parts of Lebanon that were strongly not recommended by my government's foreign affairs ministry but I went with a relative that lived in Beyrouth. To be honest, it was fine. There was no war at all, but the area was considered tensed. There were UN walking patrols in the streets, sometimes some tanks near official buildings and such things. But people walked in the streets casually. I would definitely not have done that by myself, but learning how people are expected to behave made me more confident about the potential risks.

Summary

Sorry for this long post, but the summary is that a satisfying answer might be to describe the expected behavior regarding the risks:

  • how to get information about risks (like TV/radio/newspapers, about potential storm, wind, snow, about ongoing fights in some town)
  • how to dress (to respect the culture and not to draw attention from robbers, or from militias, or to get protected in a vehicle - a helmet on a motorbike)
  • how to move around, what transportation to use (it might be considered dangerous to walk or bike in L.A. for example, just because everyone drives)
  • how to carry valuables (should they be hidden/not brought)
  • how to interact with people (e.g. not react violently when getting robbed to avoid getting hurt, be ready to accept corruption, ...)

All these are cultural but I believe can be answered so that anyone can follow these rules.

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