The Safety Dance


Scott Pack, 18th June 2008

Having polished off his first book, About The Size Of It, last week I turned this week to his new offering, How To Live Dangerously.  It is an impassioned manifesto pleading against our modern obsession with safety.  It is also very funny.

I was born in 1970.  I was walking to school on my own before the age of 10.  That was nothing special in those days.  I was riding a bike along busy roads without a helmet from a similar age.  I spent a fair amount of time out and about unsupervised because that's what you did back then.  I appear to have survived unscathed, and I suspect most kids today would manage to do likewise, if they were given the chance.

One frightening statistic in the book, and one that got me thinking I should be turfing my kids out onto the streets, was this.  In 1970 the typical 9-year-old girl would have been free to walk over 900 yards away from her front door, whether that be the walk to school, to a friend's house or to the local park.  It was the distance that most kids were allowed out.  By 1997 that distance had reduced to just over 300 yards.  Today, Cairns suggests, most won't get further than the front gate.

And why not?  Are there more child snatchers, drunk drivers, weirdos and dangers than 30 years ago?  Not really.  If anything things are safer now.  It is our attitudes that have changed.  We are frightened of things that, in all likelihood, won't happen.

Millions of people in this country smoke, something we all know is highly likely to kill you.  Big danger, but most smokers ignore it.  However, loads of people, many of them smokers, absolutely shit themselves at the thought of getting on a plane.  Something you'd have to do every day for 26,000 years to actually be involved in a crash.  Why do they worry about the latter when the former is the thing that will kill them?

I also love Warwick's argument that in order to make the world safer we need to make it more dangerous.  He cites the case of the Dutch region of Friesland, where a traffic safety officer called Hans Moderman managed to convince the authorities to remove all road signs, markings and anything separating the road from the pavement.  Rather than ensuing death and chaos the roads have become safer.  It was introduced in the town of Drachten in 2002. Since the new system came in they have had no road accidents.  And what's more the 22,000 cars coming into the town every day rarely have to struggle through traffic jams.

The theory is wonderfully beautiful.  Because everyone using the road has to be more careful, they have fewer accidents.  The system seems to have worked everywhere it was introduced.

While reading HTLD I was reminded a great deal of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  Although two very different subjects they both present a series of case studies and wrap them up in an accessible and interesting narrative.  HTLD is an easy read, almost effortless, but is chock full of sound argument and fascinating information.

This is an important book.  The people who make our laws, rules and guidelines should all be forced to read it.