In a 1946 case, Lord Justice Asquith pronounced that, "If all the trains in this country were restricted to a speed of five miles an hour, there would be fewer accidents - but our national life would be intolerably slowed down."
In the wake of the second major train disaster outside Paddington in recent times, and the nuclear leak in Tokaimura, the worst in Japan's history, many questions are raised about our social and legal attitudes to risk-taking. A recent report from the Economic and Social Research Council touching GM food, condemned the government's approach to risk as unscientific and stated that "the public are not stupid or ignorant about their approach to risk, as consumers".
Everyday life is, and always has been, a process of risk management.
Nowadays, though, the science of risk analysis is being rapidly refined. We have professors of Risk Management, pounds 400-a-day seminars for lawyers dealing with this area of the law, and slightly less expensive seminars for business people.
The way that people deal with risk does not always stand up to cold rational analysis. Magically removing all other causes of death, a steelworker doing 2,000 hours a year would live to be 6,000, a person driving a car for 10 hours a week would live to be 3,500, and person riding a motorbike for 10 hours a week would live to be only 300. Yet anyone staying at home for more than 16 hours a week for two years runs a higher risk of being killed than the motorcyclist. Imagine how many people staying at home each week suffer panic and fear, and wag admonishing fingers at statistically- safer loved ones who speed off into the distance on two wheels.
Over-compensating for risk can itself bring problems. One recent development in this area concerns the way we bring up children in a society occasionally punctuated with the most horrific and numbing incidents of child abduction and killing.
The way the news has been presented and analysed has resulted, during perhaps the last ten years, in notable changes in the way children are cared for. More of them are taken to and from school, and the general age at which they are permitted to go unaccompanied on errands or to the park has risen.
Statistically, there is a greater risk during a year of a child dying from a bee sting than of being abducted and killed by a stranger. But, while no-one tries to ban jam sandwiches and picnics, many are concerned to cosset children from dangerous adults. This might reduce the already infinitesimal risk of abduction, but it raises another risk: the risk of a generation of inadequately socialised and mistrustful young citizens. As the National Early Years Network has warned, we are bringing up our children "without the experience we need to let go of the apron strings". Apart from the consideration of any general social harm, the ultra-cautious approach also carries a cost for the emotional well-being of the child.
You could argue that the home poses a much greater danger to children than that posed to them by strangers. Fewer than 10 children are killed by strangers each year whereas about 500 are killed in the home by choking on small objects, suffocating in plastic bags, and by incidents involving scalding, falling down stairs and on to fires. …