In the Interests of Safety: using evidence to beat back security theater




Arg! These authors don’t understand! If these policies save just one life, then it’s all worth it!

(Incidentally, I believe all potential superheroes should have to take a course in basic numeracy before they are permitted to start saving the world. Perhaps then they would stop saving individuals, and instead focus their efforts on advocacy, research and development, and fund raising for organizations that are far more effective.)


Every time I’m in an airplane about to take off, I wonder how many of the passengers need the instructions on how to fasten and tighten the seat belt.


And those announcements have to be intermixed with stern warnings not to use a toilet belonging to your betters and to obey all orders of crew members, whether sane or not. (At some point, I expect to see a prosecution, and not just ejection from a flight, for “failure to obey.” The constitution implications will be … interesting.)


Often, the profit motive is a big part of it. The canteen somewhere I used to work used “health and safety” as the excuse for why they would neither microwave people’s packed lunches for them nor install microwaves for them to use themselves, which made the unpalatable canteen food the only option if you wanted a hot meal.


I blame the lawyers, everyone is afraid of being sued by every dumb ass and their lawyer that it’s spurned a whole new philosphy of risk aversion.


What constitutional implications are involved in a flight crew’s instructions? And, do you really want to be aboard an aircraft in turbulence at 35,000 feet with someone who decides to make a point about his right to make his own decisions?


Looks good, but ALSO worth pointing out that more-or-less this kind of critique is implicated with the broadly right wing conservative propaganda coup in the UK since the 1990s onwards, whose other big shibboleths are “nanny state” and “political correctness … gone mad!” You know, that atmosphere that exists – deliberately nudged along at various points, but certainly robust & self-sustaining – of confusion & paranoia about what is and is not permitted, and by whom, and about the very categories in which we should or should not expect to have to look for permission. That atmosphere informs the perpetrators of petty authoritarianism as much as it does the victims (someone’s doing something I haven’t seen before … I’ll tell them it’s against Health & Safety because for all I know it is). That atmosphere also is very nourishing to the nastier end of British popular political rhetoric – anti-welfare state, anti-immigration (& some of the anti-European rhetoric).

& I’m less sure about this next bit, but … it may seem paradoxical, but I reckon the obstructive, unreasoning jobsworth attitude (including the managerial jobsworth, who perhaps thinks about head office or litigation more than line manager) actually COMPLEMENTS a disproportionate and vertiginous dread of health and safety. That is, many of the worst health & safety petty authoritarians are the most trenchantly a priori opposed to state and other institutional regulation. This is a bit of a crude exaggeration, but at some psychological level, the REAL reason I can’t warm up your milk is because I feel uncomfortable using the racist or sexist language I always used to use with my buddies, so why should YOU get to have war milk? Or because asylum seekers and prisoners get to live in luxury: this government has its priorities all wrong, they probably don’t want me to warm up your milk, FINE, I WON’T warm up your milk: see what kind of a country we live in? All we can do is carve out our enclaves of disgusted solidarity, and by definition that won’t include people I only interact with fleetingly – these “customer” bastards or whoever – interact with on the supposed basis of liberal rational mutual self-interest. It won’t include people who haven’t been through what I’ve been through. And when I put you through just a smidge of what I’ve been through, it’s a kind of suffocated and distorted act of political protest.


Or to put it another way: “health and safety” is often the magic phrase which somehow forces the best things done by the state to take the blame for the worst things done by private sector actors. The other day in Stockbridge in Edinburgh they wouldn’t give me & my pal glasses of tap water “because of health and safety.” Man we were buying two bacon rolls, two bacon rolls.

But we scraped together the change for one bottle of water, so glug.

Okay that’s not the worst thing a market has ever done. But you know.

PS: Hmm Stewart Lee on political correctness and health & safety & his nan:


In defense of lawyers, media sensationalism is also a huge contributor to this effect. Don’t forget that people are intrinsically and naturally risk averse as a species.

For example, in the context of the famous Trolley Problem ( I imagine rules and procedures like this help people feel like they are doing something about a problem without actually addressing the real underlying issues. What if instead a binary “pull-the-lever-or-do-not” choice you could just make a policy that prohibits from letting people mill about in the rail yard? That way when some dies in the course of a thought experiment, we can shame the victim for carelessly violating “the rules”.


My current fave example:

Maybe the people in the pool would be safer if they, I don’t know, went and sat in an electrically insulated cell or something. But they aren’t going to. Actually, many of them are going to leave the building and go home. Which involves being outdoors.


Quick life hack, research “mre heaters” and “flameless ration heaters”, they work great combined with a tight fitting insulated lunch sack and take about ten minutes. Health and safety will probably freak out over the small initial steam and a metallic iron oxidizing smell so start it under your desk.


100%, the chilling effect happens when wanna-be lawyers with some sort of executive control hear something on TV, get scared, and write a memo. Scared people also drive ratings for the evening info-tainment they call news.


Lighting is pernicious. If you see one bolt, hundreds more are probably hiding in the walls.


“Just one life” was one of the most popular justifications from activists and politicians that got BC our asinine bike helmet law. Statistically, though? Cycling is safer per km than driving or even walking, and gets safer the more bikes there are on the road. While helmets themselves can be shown useful in specific cases, the helmet law hasn’t been shown to make a lick of difference to anything but ridership (which dropped).

Of course, advocate for repealing it and (in some people’s eyes) you might as well be bashing heads in yourself.


Superman, A Transitional Power Source


So, are there actually any statistical studies of how many more people have died taking cars because of fear of terrorists taking over an airplane?

I may be gullible but this sounds plausible to me. If this is true, then the big, scary, dramatic incidents with evil terrorists lurking in coach, should get less media coverage than driving the kids on the freeway to Grandma’s house.


Cycling is as about as safe as motoring per hour of participation, but is less safe per kilometre travelled. Of course cycling very rarely kills other road users, so there is that (unlike motoring whereby we continue to kill our families and friends with alarming frequency).


Uhm, I more had in mind failure to obey something arbitrary and capricious. “Please put that book away, sir. If you wish to read, we have our fine in-flight merchandise catalog available for your browsing.”


This is true in the US/Canada, where injury rates for cyclists are much higher than in some other places. Seems I was using W. European data for that claim. In urban NL, for example, cycling is indeed safer per km for people under 50. Sorry to all for the bad info. Thanks for the correction.

The point about it being an ineffective law brought in to satisfy “just one death” appeals still stands.