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Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe

By Greg Ip
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Foolproof by Greg Ip

Why do one third of Americans fear flying? After all, statistics show that you’re 1,330 times more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. Are we taking the wrong measures to truly stay safe? Foolproof (2015) explains why taking excessive precautions against danger can have terrible consequences, and why sometimes when we feel most in danger, we are actually quite safe.

Key idea 1 of 7

Sometimes, the safer we feel, the more we’re actually in danger.

Although safety regulations are put in place to protect us, they can sometimes do quite the opposite. How can this be?

When we make risky activities safer, we engage in them more often. Take driving a car, for example. In the late 1970s, anti-lock brakes were introduced in Germany to improve control over the car while braking. The government expected that this new safety mechanism would decrease the rate of fatal automobile accidents by 10 to 15 percent. Soon after, though, a study found that drivers in cars fitted with anti-lock brakes were more likely to engage in risky driving, such as driving faster and braking harder than drivers with no anti-lock brakes.

Further research found that, as drivers were placing a little too much faith in their new-fangled brakes, they were rounding curves more quickly, which increased the rate of rollovers and accidents when exiting roads.

A similar thing happened in American football. When helmets became mandatory attire in American football in 1943, the overall risk of injury was expected to go down. On the one hand, the helmets decreased the amount of broken jaws, teeth and noses. However, spinal and concussion-related injuries actually increased, with more than a 400 percent increase in broken necks.

The reason behind these disturbing statistics was said to be that, as the players felt more shielded, they began using their helmets as battering rams against the opposition!

The same happened in ice hockey too; when helmets were made mandatory in 1979, the prevalence of head fractures decreased while spinal injuries went up.

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