Risky Business

Recently on collision detection, Clive Thompson was saddened by the way that playground design has been ruined by bureaucrats. In making playgrounds less lawsuit-prone (i.e. safer), we've stripped much of the fun & learning opportunities out of them too. And I've got to agree that, by overzealously protecting children, we may seriously be hampering their development. Aren't bumps & bruises just natural byproducts of healthy risk-taking — of kids trying new stuff & learning new skills?

Well, after reading some of the comments on Clive's post, I strayed onto the interesting tangent of risk homeostasis that comes into play (pun intended) here. This theory suggests that people have an innate target level of acceptable risk which does not change. Applied to the topic of playgrounds, risk homeostasis suggests that when an area is made “safer,” kids simply find new ways to use it, generally keeping the rate of playground-induced injuries constant.

That's a thought-provoking concept. And it was a topic tackled by Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago. The gist of which is that safety initiatives only shuffle risk around rather than reduce it.

For example, we're completely unfazed about zipping down the highway at 80-90 m.p.h. (This is Texas after all) because we're comforted by automotive safety advances like 3-point restraints, airbags, ABS, crumple-zones, & such. In other words, these safety innovations may make our driving habits more risky, not less. And there's definitely support for the argument of risk compensation when you look at the attitudes & driving habits of SUV-owners — which is the topic of yet another excellent editorial by Gladwell.

Over on Damn Interesting, Cynthia Wood summed this up neatly:

Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvment at all to our overall safety, and in rare instances they may actually make us less safe. The human tendency to take risks may trump all the efforts of the safety engineers. In the end, no one can save us from ourselves.

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