Sunday, July 8, 2007

A danger to ourselves

National Geographic Adventure (a great magazine) has an interesting article in its current issue on why people who should know better sometimes make dangerous decisions--and how efforts to shield people from danger can actually be hazardous to their health.

[W]e should be aware that the safety we're being offered is often an illusion. Systems become more complex but not necessarily safer. When radar was introduced into commercial shipping, it was supposed to reduce accidents. Instead, accidents increased, because the captains drove their boats faster. Something as simple as requiring bicyclists to wear helmets can backfire in surprising ways. Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath, found that people drive their cars much closer to cyclists wearing helmets, because drivers assume that those people know what they're doing.

Seemingly simple efforts to increase safety can actually displace skill and caution. In my part of the country, that has resulted in a growing number of situations where people have ventured into the wilderness unprepared for rugged country or desert heat--but carrying cell phones with which to summon help.

This has important policy implications because, in the age of litigation and the nanny state, government officials increasingly seek to eliminate--or at least reduce--danger in everyday life through the force of law. Such laws have recently taken the form of a mandate in Oregon that mountain climbers carry locator beacons; a move that an expert quoted in the article expects to increase the number of unnecessary rescues and put more people in danger.

The whole article is worth a read.



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