The Paradox of Safety

I grew up in a transition period. A period that children didn’t wear bicycle helmets, we played in creeks, woods, and other ‘unsafe’ areas, and apart from bumps and bruises, we ended up just fine. Then something happened. Parents stopped letting children play outside, children wore more padding than a football player to ‘play dates’, and everyone suddenly got more paranoid about safety.  Not surprisingly, people still get hurt, maybe even moreso. So it’s a surprise to learn that there is an experiment in place to go in the other direction:

For a number of years now, a number of cities in Europe have been experimenting with the removal of all traffic signs – including traffic lights, stop signs, speed limit directives – and with surprising results. Various towns in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, New Zealand – even the UK! – have joined in the experiment. Contrary to the expectations of those who might expect multi-car pileups throughout the cities, traffic accidents have been dramatically reduced (in one town, dropping from about eight per year to fewer than two).

The architect of this experiment, the late Hans Monderman, is quoted to have said, “it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want”:

“Unsafe is safe” was the title of a conference held on this practice. Monderman added that this effort “shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk.” Equally significant, drivers now focus more of their attention on other motorists – taking visual cues from one another, informally negotiating for space, turning into an intersection, etc. – instead of mechanistically responding to signs and electronic machines.

Monderman stated: “When you don’t know exactly who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” He added: “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior.” In words so applicable to the rest of our politically-structured lives, he declared: “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” Monderman expressed the matter more succinctly in saying: “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.” (emphasis mine)

It boils down to this: If you want people to act in a safe manner, remove the safety factor.

For software developers, we’ve heard it in the religious wars between managed languages and unmanaged languages, and in the erroneous assumption that managed languages do not have memory leaks. I don’t have any solutions, although I believe the answer leans towards ‘Unsafe is safe’. Take away the illusion of a safety net and programmers (and people in general) will start paying more attention to their work. You won’t have any C# ‘Slap this together’ apps, but is that really a bad thing?

Bonus: has an article out today on 6 Scientific Reasons People Drive Like A-Holes. Check out reason #4.

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