The Idler QI Issue, May 2008

Health. Nothing wrong with that, is there? We like health. Safety likewise. And yet, put them together and what do you get? Health and Safety, that's what. And what that seems to mean, these days, is 'Don't Take Risks Of Any Kind.' It means, don't do this at all; don't do that unless properly supervised; don't do the other until a full risk-assessment has been carried out. It means, amongst other things, make sure your children wear safety-goggles to play conkers. Or better still, don't let them play at all.

But actually, if you really want to be safe, listen to what the Health and Safety people say, by all means - but then go and do the complete opposite.

An example: imagine you have a new job, two miles away, down a busy road. There's no pavement, so you can't walk. But you could cycle, or drive. Cycling, you're 11 times more likely to die in a crash, of head-injuries. So which do you think is safest: drive; cycle wearing a helmet; cycle without a helmet?

Actually, you're wrong. It's precisely the opposite.

Cycling is safest. Without a helmet. You're more likely to die in a crash, of course, but crashes kill far less people than heart-disease. And if you drive, and don't do exercise to compensate, you're far more likely to die of it. As for helmets, if you're hit by a car, they won't save you. That's not what they're designed for. But they do give you a false sense of security, which means you ride less cautiously. Which means more chance of getting in an accident in the first place.

Another example: children. Do you let them go out to play, with psycho drivers everywhere, and paedophiles lurking on every corner, or keep them 'safe' indoors? As it happens, outdoors is safer by far. It would take the average child, outdoors, 25,000 years to be hit by a car. And it would take 186,000 years to be abducted by a stranger. The chances of them having a serious accident indoors are considerably higher. And the chances of them getting fat, and suffering ill health and a reduced life because of it, are pretty much odds-on.

The more you look at things, the more you realise that there is no such thing as a 'risk-free' life. Even staying in bed, you have a 1 in 650 annual chance of being injured by your mattress or pillow. If you go out into the garden, 5,300 people a year are injured by flowerpots. And, in the end, we all die anyway.

In the meantime, in most things, the safest way is often the way that appears, on the face of it, to be the most dangerous. That sounds all wrong, I know; but here's an example - traffic accidents. The way to cut those, you'd think, would be more safety measures - more speed restrictions, more pedestrian safety-barriers, more warning signs. And yet in Holland, in 2003, they ripped the lot out, and made the city of Drachten "Verkeersbordvrij" (free of traffic signs), so people had to think for themselves. Until that time, they'd had an average of eight accidents per year. Since then, there have been none at all.

So if you really want to be safe, the best thing to do is to start ignoring safety advice.

This means developing your own ability to judge and handle risk, rather than expecting others to do it for you.

Start today. Start now.

Sell-by dates? 'Traffic lights' to warn you about levels of salt, sugar and fat? How about using your own common-sense instead?

Ditto cycle helmets: they're designed to protect you from a fall, not from being hit by a car, so wear one in the skatepark or on the mountain-bike track, but go bareheaded on the road. Feel your own vulnerability, and learn from it.

Or how about doing something really daring, like letting your children go out to play? Like you did when you were young, in fact, and like children have since the dawn of time. Now that would be brave, wouldn't it.

Warwick Cairns’s new book, How to Live Dangerously, is published by Macmillan in Autumn 2008


How to Live Dangerously