Safety Versus Freedom


What is an accident? Silly question? We all know what an accident is but can we define it? Since all of us have an interest in not having an accident – and doing our best to prevent others having accidents – I guess we are all in the accident prevention business. Surely, when an accident occurs we look for ways of preventing it happening again.

But hang on, if an accident is preventable, then it cannot, by definition, be an accident……can it? So, back to my question. What is an accident? If a preventable incident is not an accident then, presumably, an accident is an unexpected unpreventable incident. How about that? Well that definition would be fine if I could test it on something. The problem I now have is that for every accident I can think of, I can think of a way it could have been prevented. Therefore I conclude that the reason that no definition can be found is that there is no such thing as an accident.

When an accident happens, especially a serious one, we look at ways of preventing it happening again. This is a perfectly logical reaction. Increasingly, authorities spend time thinking up imaginary accidents;

hypothetical incidents that just may happen. In many cases they have a legal duty to do so. The result of this is inevitable. More and more restrictions are placed on our activities in the interests of our own safety. Some of these restrictions can result in a diminution of our freedoms.

For instance, we are instructed by law to drive on one side of the road only and this is accepted by just about all of us. Because of the risk of fire and damage to other’s health, smoking is banned on most public transport. This is also accepted – but not quite as widely. Then we have even more restrictive

regulations that tend to be more localized. In the UK, authorities and companies are legally bound to carry out risk assessments of many of their activities. For authorities this may include, for example, play areas in parks or public pathways. For companies, this will include just about any physical activity

involving people. This can result in seemingly petty restrictions. Recently a priest was forced to pay for expensive scaffolding when he was told that light bulbs could no longer be changed using a ladder as this contravened safety legislation.

If we took the idea that all accidents are preventable to extremes we would be banned from driving, playing sport – even walking (well you could trip up!). If we were to put up measures to prevent every possible accident, society would come to a grinding halt.

A balance needs to be struck, therefore. Because we have taken this middle ground between safety and freedom, we are still left with the occasional preventable incident and we are sometimes forced to simply shrug our shoulders and say: it was an accident, pure and simple. So, if I accept that accidents DO exist after all, my definition of an accident is: an unexpected incident that we choose not to prevent.

That said, it is surely always good practice to minimise risk. It is even more important to minimise risk to innocent third parties. If you choose to ride your bike without a crash helmet then that is your choice and only you are affected. If you drive at high speed then your actions could injure others.

Similarly, if a company makes a product destined for the open market, it must do all it can to make it as safe as possible. As well as complying with safety and labelling laws it must also ensure that safety is designed into the product wherever possible. A simple example is a knife with a retractable blade or a safety razor.

Insectocutor produce fly killers. They are designed to be dangerous – but only to house flies and other flying insects. They are cleverly designed to also be virtually harmless to humans. In fact, it would be hard to make one harmless. One effective idea is the safety

switch. If the cover of the Insectocutor is removed, the safety switch is automatically moved to the off position. The electronic killing grid – the part that zaps the flies – is rendered harmless. As soon as the cover is correctly fixed back, the safety switch is turned on again. Simple, effective and very

safe. By clever and ingenious design, Insectocutor managed to draw the right line between the ability of the product to do its job of being harmful to flies while being safe for us to use.

I guess the conclusion is that we cannot be fully free to do what we want and we cannot be guaranteed complete safety. We will always hover between the two and do our best to get it right, knowing that, like all judgement calls, there is no absolute right.


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