When safety rules don’t add up

Safety 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.

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