Book ReviewsNon fiction

When safety rules don’t add up

imageSafety rules for airline passengers were once a simple matter of confirming that no one had interfered with your luggage and you were not carrying any explosives. Today any flight involves an endless array of questions, an undignified scramble to remove jackets, scarves and belts and a public display of your cosmetics and toiletries. Laptops must be removed from your bag so they can be electronically screened. But what about iPads? Yes in some airports, no in others. Shoes on or off? Depends on how busy the queue is it seems. Those are just some of the hurdles you encounter before you even set foot in the craft itself.

Once on board there follow yet more instructions. Not content with repeated warnings  to switch off mobile devices and electronic gadgets, the steward on my small domestic flight in the USA insisted I could not have my e reader on my lap during take off. It had to be in the seat pocket according to aviation law he said. There is no such law. When was the last time you heard that a flight malfunctioned because a passenger used a mobile phone during take off or landing? I can’t think of a single case even though airline insiders estimate they on a large flight there will be around 20 people who forget to switch off their mobile phone.  If these devices really are dangerous why are they even allowed on board?

Every day, millions of us are subjected to safety rules like these that don’t make sense. We are told they are for our protection but often the risk they are meant to safeguard against is minuscule. Do I really need to be told after a buying a take away coffee that I am carrying a hot drink? Apparently I am too stupid to work this out for myself so the carton carries the warning Caution Hot Liquid. All because a woman in America sued a take away restaurant she believed responsible when she burned her legs while holding the cup between her legs as she drove her car.

Examples like these form the basis of an engrossing examination of global safety and security instructions And regulations by Tracy Brown and newspaper science editor Michael Hanlon. In the Interests of Safety: The Absurd Rules that Blight our Lives and How We Can Change Them, looks at some of the insane rules developed in a risk averse and increasingly litigious world. The authors provide plenty of examples of the kind beloved by tabloids as illustrations of what they like to call “health and safety gone mad.” Bans on parents filming their own children in school plays and sports days, nail clippers removed from airline pilots because they are deemed dangerous (these are people who will shortly be in charge of a machine loaded with gallons of highly flammable fuel),  plastic bottles of soft drinks banned from aircraft while glass bottles of alcohol are permitted. Children not allowed to play conkers in school yards in case they hurt themselves but required to play contact sports like rugby or to throw javelins and shot putts.

We go along with these rules often because we imagine that so where’d there is evidence that they make life safer. The authors show however that often the evidence is contradictory, inconclusive or simply never existed. Some are made up on the spot by an overly officious official and then become urban myths, or are introduced by local authorities to avoid compensation-seekers draining their funds. In general, whenever officials cite terrorism laws to stop you taking photographs in public, a hospital refuses to tell you how your relative is after an operation, or a call-centre worker cites “data protection” as a reason not to tell you something innocuous, the authors recommend you challenge them to cite the rule and explain exactly how it applies. “The core philosophy of the book,” the authors say, “is ask for evidence.”

As amusing as this book is, there is a more serious message amongst the many examples so absurd I winced as well as laughed. The authors research revealed that some rules actually increase risk, creating situations more dangerous than the activity they were put in place to prevent. One Danish architect cited by the book believes that the spatial awareness skills of children are restricted because the equidistant rungs on playing equipment discourage them  thinking where to put their feet.

A book of this nature could easily become a rant about the increasing control being exercised over our lives by government bodies. The authors do temper their criticism however by acknowledging that there are many essential policies and regulations, often introduced as a result of pressure from trade unions, which make our workplaces and streets safer. Their argument isn’t against health and safety regulation as such but what they urge is a more considered approach.

In The Interests of Safety is published by Sphere. My copy was provided by the publishers.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

14 thoughts on “When safety rules don’t add up

  • Hmmm … I don’t know, but I’m inclined to agree with you re the coffee story. It’s pretty stupid to put hot coffee between your knees because if it’s hot it’s likely to burn your knees which is likely to result in your spilling it. I must say that I like my coffee served HOT but I don’t tend to buy take-away. The point is, that there is surely some personal responsibility here about making sensible decisions. The mania for drinking coffee in cars, in the first place, is worth questioning to my mind. And then the trying to add milk and sugar in a clearly risky position is an issue.

    In other words, I too am bothered by the over focus on safety. It’s interesting when you travel in countries where there is not this excessive focus. I like to think machines and equipment I go on/use are subject to stringent safety regulations, that food I eat is prepared according to proper hygiene and food safety but when it comes to things involving our making sensible decisions, then I’m irritated by silly warnings and protections and am aghast at the idea of suing organisations when we don’t exercise common-sense and good personal practice.

    • The fast food chain had a rule where they served coffee at 180 degrees F – at which temperature if you get it on your skin it burns. Holding it between your legs was probably not the wisest thing to do but why did they need the temperature to be so hot – if you put that in your mouth you could be in serious trouble.

      • I read some articles that said this is a fairly common temperature and, I thought, they said, recommended but I’m too lazy to go back and check again. I’d love to know what the temperature is of coffee that I think is hot.

  • Living on a small island I need to travel by plane fairly frequently and the whole business is really irritating. How can having to put my lipstick in a clear plastic bag make it any less dangerous? Liquids – after my son had a recent operation (on the mainland) he had a drain attached to his leg – the security officials after a lot of humming and arring decided that they’d swab the bottle as they couldn’t put it through the scanner – hilarious! It was sealed and attached to his body!! Sounds like a great book although it would cause me to rant even more than I just have.

    • See this raises another question – what exactly constitutes liquid. At Heathrow I was told that lipstick doesn’t count as a liquid (it isn’t) but lip gloss is….Eh??

      • It seems to depend on the airport what is a liquid in Southampton isn’t the same as Gatwick – fact! A different definition based on airport coordinates obviously 😉

  • This sounds really interesting. I do think we have gone overboard in the interest of safety. Airplane screenings and rules are ridiculous. And child safety laws in the US these days are over the top in my opinion. Judging by the laws it is a miracle I lived through my childhood. I think sometimes these laws and rules definitely do more harm than good.

    • It doesn’t matter how many rules and regulations you introduce,you can’t totally eliminate risk. But so often the rules try to suggest that you can.

  • booknaround

    Sounds like a fascinating book. There are so many examples of the ridiculous things we are forced to do thanks to litigation and fear that truly do not benefit us or make us any safer.

    • I bet there is a website somewhere that lists the most stupid examples.

  • Sounds interesting. As a (U.S.) government employee, I’m hyper-sensitive to the subject of government interference. Yes, what is needed, as this book seems to point out, is more thoughtfulness and common sense. The nail clipper – pilot example is a good one. On the other hand, many rules are a backlash against the flood of litigation (at least here in the U.S.) from consumers who have made a poor choices. On the other hand, I will take issue with the hot coffee case — McDonalds has spent huge $$$ twisting the facts on that one so that most of us disparage the victim. In point of fact, McD was routinely burning people and quietly paying them off for years. The injuries in this case were so horrific (the victim – an elderly lady who was a passenger in the car that had pulled over and stopped so she could put her cream in the coffee) was disabled for life from her intensive burns. The warnings on cups of coffee are silly and useless– but are the legacy of that case. What would help would be for McD to lower the temp of their coffee — even if they lose a little $ because the quality slips a bit.

    • I wonder if we are talking about the same case, the one I heard of had the woman driving the car with the cup between her legs. See the problem with the litigation-happy society is that people lose all sense of how they need to take responsibility for their actions.

        • Thanks for that clarification. It just shows how stories get distorted in the retelling. I found an article today which said that the car had stopped and she was trying to get the lid off – she did have the cup between her legs but she wasn’t driving.

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