Playing It Safe Can Be Risky

I’m now reading a book called The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. It’s not a parenting book; rather a business book about creativity and innovation (and one of Amazon’s 10 Best Business Books of 2004). But one of the concepts in the book caught my attention as a parent, and I thought was worth sharing.

It’s called risk homeostasis – the notion that people have a basic “acceptable” level of risk, so if you take more risk in one area, you will compensate by decreasing risk in another. Johansson cites a few examples:

  • In Munich, Germany, researchers installed antilock brake systems in half of a group of taxis, but did nothing to the other half. Then they secretly monitored them for 3 years. Logic would suggest that the group with the brake systems – which prevents wheels from locking up under extreme braking conditions – would experience fewer accidents. But no. Both groups had the same accident rate. That’s because the group with the brake systems “drove more aggressively, braked harder, accelerated faster, swerved over lanes, and took sharper corners.”
  • Zebra crossings did not decrease the accident rate because they give pedestrians “a false sense of security that the motorist can, and will, stop in all cases”
  • Driving without your seatbelt on would cause you to drive more carefully, and research has shown the converse to be also true – that people drive less carefully when their seatbelts are on.
  • “When childproof lids on medicine bottles were introduced, it led to a significant increase in the number of child poisonings because parents became less careful about keeping the bottles away from their children.”[The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson, p167-168]

I thought it was a terrific insight, and a reminder to me (and any parent reading this) to be self-aware, and not overly dependent on external rules and aids. Knowing is half the battle 🙂


2 responses to “Playing It Safe Can Be Risky

  1. This is one of the major arguments used by people in NZ who are against the compulsory helmet rule for bicycles there. Helmets were made compulsory because of a high incidence of head injuries. But opponents say helmets make people ride less safely and have worse accidents. Personally I would rather keep my head protected even if it means i am more likely to break my leg.

    Risk actually generates alot of political discussion in NZ because outdoor life and adventure has always been part of the culture, but now there are more and more regulations, especially in relation to playgrounds and schools, that people think kids are losing out on adventure and also not learning about managing risk for themselves, because they are ‘too protected’. When i was at school, many of the jungle gyms were built on concrete – we made sure we never fell. Then it progressed to wood chips – I guess like the theory we adjusted the risk because our ‘dismounts’ became more adventurous and we fell off more. These days the playgrounds have soft rubber grounds. Personally, i am not sure if when i have children i would prefer the soft or hard landing for them – must be a hard balance to find.

    Something I’ve noticed in Singapore is that there seems to be a low awareness of physical risk mnagement, maybe because it is such an urban environment so there has been less need to learn about these things, and as you mentioned, maybe more reliance on external aids. A while ago there was a news item on TV about the IRs and other new tourist attractions that will involve adventure rides, and how there was a need to educate Singaporeans about managing risk of injury to patrons.

    About Zebra crossings, I remember when I was very young I was surprised when my Dad told me there wasn’t someone watching from somewhere who changed the light from red to green when it was safe to cross. I always imagined someone in a nearby hidden booth watching and changing the lights for us. From then on I knew to always look both ways even when the light was green. Also reminds me that in NZ there are signs saying do not j-walk – not to protect the j-walker – but so little children don’t get the idea that it is safe to cross. So when i am at a intersection where children are waiting to cross, I always wait for the light.

    For seatbelts, no matter how carefully you drive, its the other person you have to worry about, so driving carefully is not a good argument against the need for seatbelts.

  2. Hi David and thanks for that thoughtful comment. I should clarify firstly that I’m absolutely NOT advocating that we should stop using external aids like seatbelts. You’re quite right that no matter how safely you drive/ride etc, there’s always the person out there….

    It’s great to have an NZ perspective on things. I agree that here in Singapore, our awareness is still pretty low. I know of only one Singaporean family that uses bicycle helmets, and even there, they are turning agnostic! I’d put it down to our going from 3rd world to 1st in a jiffy that our mindset hasn’t quite caught up yet. My parents told me that when I was a kid, our family vehicle was a scooter, and I would ride in the middle, wedged between both of them. Reminiscent of those pictures of Cambodian/Vietnamese/Laotion families of 4-5 riding on a motorbike!

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