A tale of two clichés

DJS, Times, 1st July 2010

Newton’s Third Law of Platitudes states that every proverb - “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” - has an equal and opposite version - “Better safe than sorry”. So which cliché should we believe when we choose an attitude to risk? Should we encourage taking chances and release our entrepreneurial spirit, but which can also lead us to eat, drink and die early, and drill holes in the bottom of the sea with abandon? Or should we be cautious, try to protect ourselves and our children from all harm, but which can also mean grounding all aircraft at the first whiff of volcanic ash?

It’s yet another cliché to say we should try and get the balance right between these two extremes and, in a term used by Baroness Ilora Finlay, to use ‘risk intelligence’ to weigh the potential harms and benefits and come up with the rational decision. But this is not so easy. We don’t know what’s going on but also are unsure who to trust among all the vested interests while, as the current cuts demonstrate, the people arguing for more freedom to take risks may not be the ones who have to take the consequences. Our attitudes can also change - surveys in the mid 1980’s showed deep fears of microwave ovens.

Let’s look at another household item - window blinds. Hardly the most obvious threat to mankind, but remarkably topical. Earlier this month IKEA recalled 3.5 million roller blinds in the US and Canada because of the risk of children being strangled on the cord – it is now against US Federal law to sell these products. Is this ‘Elf and Safety Gone Mad? Maybe not - this week’s British Medical Journal coincidentally reports on numerous fatalities and near misses from window blinds, and claims that at least 5 young children in the UK have died in this way in the last year. This indicates a considerable danger: as a comparison, 7 children under 5 were killed in car accidents in 2008 in England and Wales.

Risk to children arouses strong feelings and we might agree that window blinds could be easily re-designed. But what if the claimed risk to children involves some benefits? The positive aspects of risk-taking are argued by entrepreneurs and others keen to encourage adventure, and the last government set up the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council which stoutly declared itself as ‘fighting zero-tolerance of risk’. Nick Clegg has just announced plans to scrap restrictive laws, which may include apparently ‘protective’ measures such as fingerprinting children.

Children’s outdoor activities, especially school trips, are a natural front-line battleground in this difficult conflict between risk and caution. After the sad deaths of 4 children canoeing in Lyme Bay in 1993 there was media and public pressure that ‘something must be done’, and subsequent legislation (opposed by the Health and Safety Executive) led to around half of outdoor centres closing. Reductions in school trips have led to burgeoning ‘safe’ time spent in front of computer games.

But adventurous, and risky, activities are now making a steady but concerted fight back. The Countryside Alliance recently argued that expensive litigation is a myth, and that local authorities each pay out an average of just £293 a year in compensation following accidents on schools trips, while the English Outdoor Council produced a report featuring grinning kids hurling themselves down waterfalls and a remarkable quote from the Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents: “We need to accept that uncertainty is inherent in adventure, and this contains the possibility of adverse outcomes. A young person’s development should not be unduly stifled by the proper need to consider the worst consequence of risk but must be balanced by its likelihood and indeed its benefits.”

Indeed, the dreaded ‘risk-assessment’ is beginning, in children’s play provision, to be replaced by a ‘risk-benefit assessment’, which explicitly requires you to weigh up whether the benefits are worth the risks. Even the Chair of the Health and Safety Executive says that “an approach that accepts that a degree of risk - properly managed - is not just inevitable but positively desirable”.

These are fine sentiments. But it requires courage to argue that taking chances can be beneficial in the almost certain knowledge that eventually something horrible will happen that, in principle, could have been avoided. But someone has to have the confidence to declare that safety both cannot, and should not, be guaranteed.

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