Sat, May 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The natural desire for thrill-seeking and reckless behavior

By Simon Jenkins  /  The Guardian

In the same spirit, the skydiving pioneer Bill Booth said that “the safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take, in order to keep the fatality rate constant.”

They are not trying to die, but to maintain their level of thrill. It is a basic instinct.

Safety is now almost as big an industry as defense, and as dependent on irrationality for its sustenance. An army of inspectors, designers, equipment suppliers and roads engineers have a vested interest in denying risk compensation theory. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents excoriates Adams, retorting that “seat-belts save lives,” without considering the lives of the wearers’ victims.

Risk assessment feeds on the resulting hysteria. Its practitioners increasingly take refuge in a belief that humans can be programmed for ever safer behavior. Hence the idiot “risk assessment” box-ticking familiar to today’s corporate employees.

Risk statistician David Spiegelhalter regularly points to some of the madder outcomes of this unreason. After Sept. 11, 2001, 1,500 extra road deaths were attributed to people turning from planes to more dangerous car travel. During the last bird flu hysteria, so much attention was diverted from ordinary healthcare that hundreds of extra deaths were ascribed to it (and none to bird flu).

The safety industry regularly proclaims itself in favor of “proportionate” risk — only “as safe as necessary.”

However, necessary is always an upward ratchet. I have never come across an Health and Safety Executive inspector demanding a reduction in safety. Regular press releases seek to demolish “health and safety myths.”

However, this is an industry that depends on an ever wider umbrella of hyper-security.

This lobby has no interest in risk. It will never seek to make domestic adventure tourism more adventurous, let alone more risky. I doubt if the Health and Safety Executive would sponsor a bungee competition or a helmet-free cycle race. The one risk it recognizes is what would happen if there were an accident (nowadays always an “incident”) after it had reined in its storm troops.

There are some risks I would gladly see displaced overseas. I would rather a hedge-fund manager got his adrenaline rush from Hawaiian surf than by blowing my pension fund on a sub-prime derivative. I would rather a minister indulged himself in a Bali nightclub than risked all on an National Health Service sub-contract. Dangerous driving could well be displaced to the Sahara desert. If testosterone seeks an outlet in foreign climes so be it.

Whether young Britons are really being compelled to seek risk abroad by over-regulation at home is hard to prove. However, pressing up against some danger threshold must be part of the human makeup. It cannot be repressed by bureaucracy, or it will merely resurface elsewhere. We admire young people who seek to do ostensibly stupid things abroad. We probably do so because we have suppressed their freedom to find such thrills, challenges and risks closer to home.

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