/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Mon, Sep 8 2014
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  • In the Interests of Safety: using evidence to beat back security theater

    In the Interests of Safety: using evidence to beat back security theater

    "Health and Safety" is the all-purpose excuse for any stupid, bureaucratic, humiliating rubbish that officialdom wants to shove down our throats. In the Interests of Safety, from Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon, is the antidote: an expert dismantling of bad risk-analysis and a call-to-arms to do something about it, fighting superstition and silliness with evidence.

    "Health and safety" is one of those mind-viruses that colonizes people and organizations. From airport security patdowns to lockdown drills at schools, every corner of our modern world has been colonized by the safety virus. And the inconvenience and frustration of dealing with bogus security theater are just the beginning: the real cost is in the disordering of our ability to assess and address real risk. Every time a lazy manager invents a "health and safety" rule to stifle dissent of his own autocratic initiatives, he discredits the whole idea of safety regulation, many of which are not only sensible, but vital.


    For years, the campaigning group Sense About Science has run its Ask For Evidence campaign through which the general public are trained to ask for and assess the evidence-basis for the policies they are expected to follow. Through long experience, Tracey Brown -- SAS's Director -- has mapped out the culture of buck-passing risk-aversion and found its soft spots, and in In the Interests of Safety she and science writer Michael Hanlon give us a guided tour of the dumbest things done in the name of safety, as well as the smartest, and, most importantly, give us a toolkit for telling the difference and effecting real change.

    For example, there's a notorious story about a Transport for London manager who told the cleaning staff that they weren't allowed to wear wooly hats to keep warm while cleaning frigid train platforms, saying that official health and safety rules prohibited the practice, since the hats might impair the cleaners' hearing and put them at risk of stepping into the path of a train. Anyone hearing this (true) story would likely assume that health and safety is run by dunderheads and jobsworths. But no such health and safety rule exists -- no such rule ever existed. That's because the UK Health and Safety Executive are remarkably sensible about things like this -- they, more than anyone, are frustrated by this sort of story, in which a manager just decided, autocratically, to tell his staff what kind of hats he thought they should wear and, when challenged, fell back on the often-unassailable "health and safety" excuse. This kind of thing discredits the real, good work of evidence-based safety measures that genuinely reduce mortality and improve the quality of life.

    This kind of health-and-safety stuff is unbelievably common in modern society, whether it's my daughter's daycare who wouldn't let us take pictures of her school play for "health and safety"; or the Costa Coffee stall at London's Excel Centre where the manager said they wouldn't warm up cream for my coffee for "health and safety" reasons; or the security manager at Luton airport who told me that plugging in my laptop was prohibited lest it cause an electrical fault that made the airport burst into flame (he explained that the electrical adapters for sale in the airport, whose floor models were plugged in 24/7, were somehow safer, and that I could plug in my laptop only if I bought a new adapter every time I entered the terminal and kept the receipt to show to him).

    Brown and Hanlon draw on the existing literature -- books like Schneier's Beyond Fear and Skenazy's Free-Range Kids -- explaining how to sensibly assess risks and trade-offs (for example, if you make air travel less convenient for "safety," you increase the number of miles driven and the number of road fatalities -- in the two years after 9/11, another WTC's worth of traffic fatalities were attributable to people who drove rather than flew).

    To this, they add their own favourite stories of loony risk-culture. For example, local authorities across Britain spent millions on the tombstone toppling project through which thousands of graves were desecrated in the name of hunting down unsafe monuments, without any evidence basis; another example is the Right to Swim campaign, in response to the evidence-free, widely adopted rule that insisted on a 1:1 adult:child ratio in public pools, which effectively ended any kind of swim training for twins and families with more than one kid around the same age.

    But the authors go beyond pointing out how silly these rules were from an evidentiary basis: they also pay close attention to the various excuses given for the policies. For example, Zurich, who insure the majority of the local councils that attacked their ancient graveyards, never threatened to raise premiums for councils unless they did so -- in fact, they asked councils to stop! And in the case of the pools, the policy was adopted -- and often cited as a law -- even though it was just a recommendation from an industry body (and when that body was challenged to show its research, it turned out that it had none -- indeed, there had been zero accidental drownings of under-eights in public pools in recent history).

    Most importantly, Brown and Hanlon focus on the people who've fought back against this silliness and won, showing how online activism, a cool head, and the right kinds of tactics can enlist neighbours, the press, and regulators to bring these dumb ideas to a halt. And they lay out a programme for future fights that emphasises preserving useful safety measures and helping to educate authorities on the way that they can put their energies into the things that matter and make real change. For example, 40 percent of aviation crash fatalities are preventable through use of emergency exits. But the information about your nearest exit -- something that makes an enormous difference to your chances of surviving a crash -- is mixed in with a bunch of effectively useless stuff about using escape rafts and not using the wrong toilet.

    From Data Protection to maternity advice to aviation, In the Interests of Safety is a handbook for taking back the discussion of safety from the petty bureaucrats and their culture of risk-averse fear, and for making policy responsive to evidence. This is an essential book, a tonic against the travails of modern life.

    In the Interests of Safety: The absurd rules that blight our lives and how we can change them

    -Cory Doctorow

    (Image: Don't Worry, It Will Be Fine, Jeff Hitchcock, CC-BY)

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