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Is Safer Always Better?

“Watch Yourself, Why Safer isn’t always Better” by Matt Hern, PhD., (an East Vancouver author) is a new book that caught Road Rules’ attention. For over four years Road Rules has dedicated itself to supporting the imperative—Watch Yourself—and the seemingly opposite proposition: that on the roads, safer is always better. We were, therefore, intrigued.

Mr. Hern begins by exploring “the idea of safety” and finds it surprisingly difficult to grasp with “consistently plastic” meanings. “Safe” as the opposite of “in danger” or “at risk” is never possible, he says, because we are always at risk of something. Safe as “protected from reasonable risk” is “too loose.” “Secure” is dismissed as “at best, a temporary phenomenon.” He prefers the concept of “safeness” —the “weeding out of [the] insecurities and the oddities of life, making it predictable and secure.” 

Mr. Hern asserts that risk is relative; a matter of perception and culture, and that in our culture, “an army of safety experts and risk managers reduce the ideal of taking care of ourselves and each other to professional accountability and all-pervasive authority—the security guard at the library, the lifeguard telling you not to play ball at the beach, the security cameras on the corner…and Safety First everywhere.”
While Mr. Hern cites numerous examples for safety having made our lives better, he questions the implications of safety discourse having become “the baseline for our thinking and acting”—a baseline that has come to mean that “doing the right thing means doing the safe thing.”
Mr. Hern’s study looks at what we have surrendered or lost and how we have become, paradoxically, more vulnerable, less fulfilled and less free by making safety our baseline in the context of home security, child rearing, schooling and community policing. In each of these contexts he offers alternatives to the defensive tools and tactics currently employed in our efforts to achieve “safeness”. These alternatives lead to exploring the ideas of “defensible space theory,” contemporary community and interdependence, how our culture considers the “natural” and our relationship with it, and the benefits of learning from experience.
Also, Mr. Hern critiques the roles of civil law, the insurance industry, and new technologies and gadgets in keeping us safe. His alternatives are premised on his respect for individual self-reliance combined with our instinctive desire for interconnectedness.
Road safety is discussed only tangentially. He explores the puzzle presented by SUVs —people feel safe in them despite the fact that they are apparently not safer in some respects- for example, they will roll over more easily than a car. He sketches the ironic history of the private car as “the machine that was supposed to deliver us from overcrowding, congested streets, endemic filth, dangerous traveling and disorderliness.”
Mr. Hern does not directly address the vast subject of road safety nor mention the severity of the risk and our collective apathy towards these very real, big numbers. As he says, his book…”should open far more questions than it closes.”

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