Is Safer Always Better?

A dozen warning signs on a construction site in KL

On January 2, 2008, an American soldier stationed in Iraq was electrocuted in his shower due to an improperly grounded water pump.

I’ve been shocked by showers in Bolivia, India, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Fortunately not seriously, but it did make bathing more exciting. You learn not to touch the taps. Actually, I once read of an entire apartment building in Mumbai which was improperly grounded. The tenants had taken to coating their faucets with silicone caulk to prevent electrocution.

Why does this happen, how could this happen? Do such places have poor codes or poor enforcement or is it just the mere sloppiness of heathens? Any way you slice it, the developing world is a more dangerous place. This isn’t always by choice: clean water and emergency services are mostly unavailable to the very poor. But those are risks that make sense, risks as old as humans that require infrastructure and advanced civilization to mitigate. What I wonder about are the billions who ride motorbikes without helmets.

And yet. And yet. There are freedoms lost in safety. All of the trains in my Toronto childhood had stickers on the window saying “keep head and arms inside.” A pity, because I loved to feel the wind in my face. Likewise, subway platforms in developed countries around the world tell us to stay back from the edge. Do we really need to be told not to fall off the edge?

So that same Thailand, India, Ethiopia — what a childhood missed! Riding not only with my head out the window but actually on the roof of a train! Drinking a lassi from a vendor without a permit. Walking around shin-breaking holes in the sidewalk without the aid of caution tape. Jumping off well before coming to a full and complete stop!

Organizers of the charity group Food Not Bombs have repeatedly been arrested for giving away food without proper health permits. Art projects like Dance Dance Immolation are almost impossible to run in a legal fashion, because no insurer understands them. Even baloons are no longer considered safe (choking hazard.)

People do get injured. People do die. Manufacturers do need to be responsible, and complex risks (especially those involving information asymmetry) probably cannot be managed without regulation. But every new rule prohibiting something useful or fun is a tiny death for a culture. We are constrained invisibly, without ever knowing it. It is only when we go somewhere we can actually be exposed to real risks that we can understand the tradeoffs made, the risks that others have evaluated in our name.

How many people would actually be poisoned by contaminated free food? Does anyone even know any more? Was the elimination of this risk worth the gains we eliminated along with it?

Perhaps it is only by being allowed to make mistakes that a civilization can learn what risk is. I am generally a fan of safety. But not always. I don’t like being shocked in the shower, but I still do dream of sticking my head and arms out the streetcar window.

3 thoughts on “Is Safer Always Better?”

  1. Word!

    I dream of the tall metal slides and swings of my childhood. There are so few dangerous playgrounds any more here. The only thing I prefer about new playgrounds is the bounce of rubber under my feet.

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