If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Killed by a safety precaution?

This is a very sad story.

A teenager on her way to collect her GCSE results was killed after she was knocked down by a council refuse lorry without a reverse warning alarm, an inquest heard today.

Esther Bush, 16, died after walking behind the 7.5-ton flat bed truck and into the driver’s blindspot as he was reversing.

Without wishing to add to anyone's grief, it did occur to me to wonder if the reversing alarm had caused the girl's tragic death. Not the alarm which was not fitted to the lorry in question, but the millions that are fitted to others. We get so used to hearing that annoying bleep-bleep-bleep whenever a large vehicle is manoeuvering, that the two become linked in our minds. Could Esther have been thinking "that lorry isn't bleeping, so it's safe to walk behind it"? Equally, could the driver have been thinking "lorries have reversing bleepers, so no-one will be walking behind me"? He might have been wrong in this case, but it's not a hard mistake to make.

Sometimes, 'safety' features can have the opposite of the desired effect. Seat-belts in cars, for example - they reduce injuries to car occupants, but transfer the carnage to pedestrians and cyclists as drivers compensate for the additional feeling of safety they now have.

The world would be a safer place, and accidents like this one less likely, if people had to think things through, instead of relying on 'safety' equipment that is often anything but. If Esther had had to check and see if it was safe to walk where she did, would she have decided differently? We'll never know, but I have a concern that future generations are not learning to assess risks and act on their assessment. They grow up learning that things have warning signals, or barrier fences, or blunt edges, or safety cut-outs, and that nothing is ever dangerous - and if you get hurt, it's always someone else's fault.


  1. Likewise, without wishing to show any insensitivity or comment on the particulars of this case: it is sad, but it does also highlight that there is undoubtedly a need for people to UNDERSTAND that safety is THEIR responsibility, not just hear it repeated as a meaningless H&S mantra. The problem is often in giving them a valid frame of reference in which to work.

    An often-quoted work is "One False Move" (http://www.psi.org.uk/publications/ENVIRON/onefm.htm). In 1971, 80% of children made their own way to school; by 1990 it was 9%. The decline in child pedestrian road accidents almost exactly mirrors this drop, implying that there has been no increase in road safety beyond not allowing children any independent mobility. Equally, that means there are that many fewer children who have had the opportunity to develop road sense and experience.

    Invisibility of safety measures is also a problem: for example, high-viz used to stand out against the background. Now it is so ubiquitous as to be in danger of losing all visibility, both physically and psychologically (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2005/jan/15/photography). Daytime running lights are another good example: they were made compulsory in Austria in 2006 and a 12% increase in accidents followed. After they were banned in 2008, accident rates fell by 5% (http://www.dadrl.org.uk/). Casual use of such safety measures can actually be counterproductive to those who really need them, as well as giving a deeply flawed sense of security to the casual user.

    The perception of risk is often flawed: SUVs are often said to be safer than cars because of their size, weight and rugged construction. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they are more likely to be involved in accidents and more likely to cause fatalities (not necessarily to the occupants) (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/4x4-debate-enemy-of-the-people-405113.html). Not a definition of "safer" I would agree with, but still a prime reason for people purchasing them.

    Then there is risk compensation and risk homeostasis. Broadly, the tendency of an individual's behaviour to reach an accepted (subconscious) average level of riskiness by taking more or less caution in particular circumstances (http://psyc.queensu.ca/target/). Increasing perceived safety will produce a higher level of risk-taking and hence no overall benefit in terms of actual safety. Included in that perception of safety is a reliance on the expectation of being warned where danger exists.

    This tragic example could be a risk compensation process (no bleeper = low perceived risk = higher degree of incautious behaviour), although it perhaps says a worryingly great deal more about general observational skills. After all, even without a bleeper, there are some clues as to vehicle activity: reversing lights, engine noise and 7.5 tons of metal looming ever closer. In fact, I can remember the days before bleepers were fitted and those were exactly the things to look out for!

    Perhaps this was nothing more than a sadly fatal moment's distraction. Possibly, even despite that, the poor girl might have been saved by someone else's actions, as recommended by the coroner. We'll never know, but surely she - and any number of other youngsters - would have more of a chance if they were taught how to observe and understand their own surroundings (a risk assessment, by any other name) and not rely on someone else having to give them a warning, or spot them at the last moment.

  2. I'm looking back to a time when kids were allowed to be kids, when climbing trees without adult supervision, hi-viz clothing or formal method statements was the norm. We learned what hurt and what didn't, and we gradually developed a feel for risk and ways of dealing with stuff that were (relatively) safe and got us where we wanted to be. When my kids were young I let them play pretty much where they wanted (we were in a small Lincolnshire village). The only stipulation I made was that any potential accidents would be painful rather than life-threatening (climbing frames over grass, rather than hard concrete, etc.).

    I'm very much in favour of people taking responsibility for themselves, assessing risks before they do something, and acting accordingly, and also accepting that sometimes accidents happen. At my place of work recently, a young boy chipped a tooth while playing on equipment we had provided. It was a simple fall that no-one could have predicted, and yet a week later I had a solicitor's letter announcing that his mother was alleging negligence and requiring compensation from us. I'm not bothered about the liability claim - we can defend that easily - but what grieves me is that this little lad was being taught that, when things go wrong and you hurt yourself, you look for someone to blame and you hire a good lawyer. At his age, the lesson for me would have been 'hurts, doesn't it? Take more care next time'. That's the way the human race learns, and we are failing to do it.


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...