The perils of living in a risk-free world
Whenever there is an accident involving an adventure sport, a cry goes up to prohibit it
Saturday 31 July 1999
In deciding which dangerous activities should be regulated, it is important to distinguish between risks that are voluntarily assumed and those that are imposed upon us by others. Managing risk involves making choices in the face of uncertainty. Many of these choices involve mundane, directly perceptible risks. We manage these sorts of risk instinctively and intuitively - we do not undertake a formal probabilistic risk assessment before we cross the street. Where the risks concerned are voluntary, an invisible hand appears to be at work, ensuring that the number of accidents we have is optimal. Optimal?
We get what we bargain for. Risk management is a balancing act. We weigh the rewards of risk against potential adverse outcomes. A zero-risk life is not on offer. It is possible to have too few accidents. The speculator slogan No risk, no reward is true for all of us. If Ayrton Senna had not taken risks, he would never have won a race. So, in a less dramatic way, with crossing the road to catch a bus; if we are late and determined not to miss it, we will take greater risks dodging traffic in order to catch it. No one wants to have an accident, but we all appear to want to be our own risk managers. Attempts by legislators, regulators and safety campaigners to make us safer than we choose to be are routinely frustrated by behaviour that re-establishes the level of risk we want to take in pursuit of the rewards we seek.
In the case of adventure sports, the risk itself is the main reward - the rush of adrenaline, the sense of achievement, the applause of one's peers are all rewards for which some, especially young men, will risk all. Why? We live in a society that is profoundly ambivalent about risk. If you peruse this very newspaper, you will find that the heroes of the sports pages, the business pages, even the arts pages, are all risk-takers. Conquerors of Everest, round-the-world yachtsmen, champion jockeys, Formula 1 racers, and risk-taking artists and entrepreneurs have official honours bestowed upon them. And the Prime Minister has recently been encouraging us all to take more risks - but not, of course, to have more accidents. And there's the rub - taking risks leads, by definition, to accidents. To take a risk is to do something that has a probability of an adverse outcome.
With involuntary risks - that is imposed risks - there are limits to the efficacy of the invisible hand. There are many residential streets with fast traffic and good accident records - because children are forbidden to cross them, old people are afraid to cross them, and fit adults cross them quickly and carefully. The good accident record is purchased at the cost of community severance - people on one side of the road do not know their neighbours on the other. About one third as many children are killed in road accidents today as in 1922 when there was a nationwide 20mph speed limit and hardly any traffic - not because the streets are now three times safer for children to play in, but because they are seen by parents as so dangerous that they do not let their children out any more. One person's freedom to drive fast is another person's imposed risk. Whether children should be withdrawn from the threat, or the threat withdrawn from the children, is a matter for political negotiation.
Attempts to regulate voluntary risk should be abandoned - except for children. Newborn infants have all their risk-management decisions taken for them by their parents or guardians. The process of growing up is one that involves a progressive handing over of responsibility for these decisions until the child reaches the age of responsibility. Whenever the state intervenes to override decisions made by adults about risks to themselves that they freely choose to take, it fairly earns the title The Nanny State.
Attempts to criminalise voluntary self-risk have a dismal record. Convincing evidence is now available about the risks of smoking, drinking to excess, taking various drugs, and eating too many cream cakes, yet many people still do these things, strongly suggesting that, for those who indulge, the perceived rewards outweigh the adverse consequences. The main effect of prohibition, whether of drink or drugs, has been the spawning of criminal empires.
At the same time that the Prime Minister is urging us to take more risks, armies of regulators and safety officers are attempting to ensure that we take none. The much-loved Routemaster bus, the one with the open platform, is being consigned to oblivion because people, exercising the freedom it provides to jump on or off between stops, occasionally have accidents. There is almost certainly a connection between attempts such as this by the safety bureaucrats to eliminate all risk from our lives and the growing popularity of dangerous sports. The more Nanny seeks to wrap us in cotton wool, the more we seek to reintroduce risk into our lives. We seem to resent imposed safety as much as imposed danger. One of the most important rewards of risk-taking is the confirmation it provides that we are free to exercise our own judgement.
Professor John Adams co-presents 'Big Ideas: Virtual Risk', on BBC2, Sunday, 7.30pm
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