Danger is a safer method!


Hilary Stelfox, Saturday 3rd April 2008


AN extremely interesting book dropped on to my desk this week, a book that will have members of the Health and Safety Executive gnawing at their padded desks with annoyance and outrage.

It’s called How to Live Dangerously and is, in essence, a summary of all that’s wrong with the way we live life in the 21st century.

The picture on the cover says it all; there’s a young child perched on a skateboard wearing knee pads, encased in bubble-wrap, and sporting a safety helmet.

I saw myself on every page because it’s a book directed at compulsive worriers, the sort of people who fret about their children being abducted/ run over/ turning into druggies and/or falling in with a ‘bad crowd’.

If you’ve ever bought wrist guards for your roller-blading pre-teens or considered micro-chipping your children as well as your pets then this book should be pushed firmly into your anxiety-ridden, sweating palms.

It’s written by English and psychology graduate Warwick Cairns and is a light-hearted and yet serious-at-the-same-time look at our cotton wool culture.

I found the chapters on modern child-rearing of particular interest, as one of my major worries is that I’m raising mollycoddled children who will not be able to fend for themselves when they leave the incubator.

We are, says Warwick, rearing our offspring in captivity instead of using free range methods.

He points to statistics and research by organisations, universities and governments that show how the more we do to safeguard our children the more we are damaging them.

For example:

According to the Children’s Society, back in 1970 eight out of 10 children walked to school; in 2007 under one in 10 did. We now have more unfit and obese children than ever before.

Half of all parents today think that children shouldn’t be allowed out of the house on their own until they are 14. A Mental Health Foundation report in 1999 concluded that insulating children retarded the development of their coping mechanisms and was a “major factor in the rise of mental health problems in recent years’’.

While most of us worry about road accidents and injuries, disease actually kills 15 times more people than accidents. Having said that, the number of teenagers injured in road accidents is rising; the suggestion is that they don’t develop much road sense while younger because they rarely cross roads unaccompanied.

In 1989, after the seat-belt law required children sitting in the rear of cars to be safely strapped in, there was an increase in the number of fatalities. Warwick says the widely held explanation for this is that when drivers feel their passengers are ‘safe’ they take more risks while driving.

Warwick argues that the world is no more dangerous today than it was 30 years ago, but as parents we have become more fearful.

We see high-profile stories such as the McCann case and decide that we won’t take any chances with our children.

When Firstborn was tiny it was Jamie Bulger’s murder that put fear in our hearts. I dutifully went out and bought one of those wrist straps and a harness to save my infant from strangers.

Logically I knew that the chances of abduction were slight, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Ironically, my first-born baby has now taken up one of the most dangerous of the extreme sports, rock climbing, because young humans are thrill-seekers and risk-takers by nature.

Warwick says one of the ironies of modern life is that we have failed to take account of basic human behaviour and psychology.

He quotes a committee of scientists, psychologists and health and safety experts from 16 countries who concluded in the 1990s – when the health and safety culture was not as extreme as it is today – “that confidence in safety devices, whether they be helmets, seat belts, safety ropes for climbers or safety nets for trapeze artists, affects behaviour’’.

It went on: “People respond in a way that tends to nullify the intended effect of the device.’’

In fact, there is a body of evidence that suggests the way to improve safety is to remove safety devices and force people to take responsibility for themselves.

This is not a popular notion as ours is also a culture that likes to attach blame to others. Those who trip on pavement cracks because they were not looking where they were going somehow manage to drag their gammy legs along to the nearest solicitor’s office.

And it is the fear of litigation – or breaching the ever-growing mountain of health and safety regulations – that keeps us snug in our bubble-wrap.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Warwick points to the example set by a Norwegian headmaster who created a true adventure playground – not a rubberised mat in sight – in which children were left to make their own risk assessments and learn to play together.

Parents were, he says, stunned by the way the children developed mentally and physically and how their social skills improved.

And then there’s the evidence from what are known as ‘shared space schemes’ in Europe, where all road signs and markings are removed so that both pedestrians and motorists alike have to exercise caution on the roads.

While this would seem to be a recipe for disaster such schemes have, in fact, reduced casualties and, incidentally, freed up traffic jams.

The message from Warwick’s book is that it is fear of danger that keeps us safe.

Paradoxically, removing that fear by putting safety measures in place simply pushes us to take other risks.

With children this means that they will find their thrills away from the rubberised playgrounds and supervised sports sessions.

There’s even a theory that drug-taking is on the increase precisely because it is dangerous and unregulated.

I’ll leave the last word to Warwick: “What will the world be like when anxiety spirals completely out of control, when personal responsibility is non-existent and when every single decision affecting every aspect of our personal safety is made for us by other people?

“As it happens, some people are already living in this world; they are called children.’’