When Safety Measures Make Us Unsafe: How Everything from Seatbelts to Bank Deposit Insurance Can Backfire

By Molotch, Harvey | Reason, March 2016 | Go to article overview

When Safety Measures Make Us Unsafe: How Everything from Seatbelts to Bank Deposit Insurance Can Backfire


Molotch, Harvey, Reason


Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe, by Greg Ip, Little, Brown, 326 pages, $28

SOMETIMES OUR efforts to be safe have the opposite effect. Bike helmets may seduce riders into taking chances they otherwise would not. So they die. Better to think riding a bike is really dangerous: That leads to more caution, and more lives saved. Same with snow tires--having them lessens anxiety, and presto, careless maneuvers are more likely.

In Foolproof, reporter Greg Ip of The Wall Street Journal takes up many examples of unintended effects. Seat belts, antibiotics, river dams, antilock car brakes, fire prevention, saving for a rainy day--all good things that, I fear to say, have at least the prospect of built-in danger.

But some safety measures do work, a lot of times dramatically or at least pretty well. The book's subtitle tells us that safety "can be" dangerous, not that it will be dangerous. This leads to the inconvenient necessity of rational discrimination on a case-by-case basis. Kids driving without seat belts on a Saturday night are a self-destroying menace in a way middle-age women on a Tuesday morning are not. We need, as Ip declares (and delivers), to examine the relevant "history and evidence with an open mind." Even when much of the story is well-known, Foolproof gives us further details that clear up old questions--and sometimes, alas, raise new ones.

Fire prevention is a good place to start. Smokey the Bear had a myopic view of the health of forests--no fires, no way, no day. Some plant species, however, need fire to reproduce; it's part of their nature. Mature trees, Ip explains, survive forest fires because their crowns are above the intense heat churned up below. What does them in are stands of adjacent young trees that provide a ladder for flames to climb to their crowns. Regularly occurring, and thus smaller-scale, fires would have destroyed those young trees. Such fires would also have taken away the heavy kindling that otherwise accumulates on the forest floor. In the longer term, and contrary to Smokey, nobody can prevent forest fires. It is often good to let nature run its course.

Another charge against Smokey: "His campaigns against fires lull people into building houses where they should not go, as do all the paraphernalia on standby to stamp them out. Among other troubles, this shifts costs to insurance companies (who are slow to get the message and raise premiums), to public agencies that deploy personnel and equipment, and to outfits like the Federal Emergency Management Agency that are supposed to follow up with shelter. Ever balanced, Ip agrees that we need to fight fires when there is a direct threat to homes, businesses, or lives. But Smokey needs some culling.

Ip also takes on football helmets. They were an obvious fix for head injuries on the field, long suffered not just by professional athletes but by athletic schoolboys. The problem: Players adjusted to the apparent safety by using their heads as battering rams against opposing players. Head injuries went down, a nearterm gain, but injuries were deflected to other body parts. The U.S. saw a threefold rise in permanent quadriplegics and a fourfold increase in broken necks.

But learning does happen. The National Collegiate Athletic Association came up with a ban on "spearing," essentially the practice of using the head to deliberately punish the opponent. As a result, Ip reports, "spinal injuries fell dramatically," so a lot of the safety benefit did survive.

Ip thus refuses to embrace what has been called the "Jevons paradox," named for the English scientist--William Jevons--who advanced the overall concept around 1865. The Jevons paradox asserts, as an almost Newtonian law, that any gain in the security direction will be offset by a loss in the opposite direction. Critics often use it to argue against all kinds of do-good interventions. Ip takes the charges seriously, but his open mind leads him to doubt, for precise reasons he cites, that they provide an accurate picture overall. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

When Safety Measures Make Us Unsafe: How Everything from Seatbelts to Bank Deposit Insurance Can Backfire
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.