In The Interests Of Safety: The Absurd Rules That Blight Our Lives

James Walton

According to the authors' introduction, In the Interests of Safety was written out of a sense of anger. But while their book is obviously heartfelt, it’s never anything approaching a rant. Instead, they calmly dismantle many of the assumptions that now govern our lives.

Health and Safety Gone Mad

in the interests of health and safety book

In the Interests of Safety: The Absurd Rules that Blight Our Lives (Sphere, £10.39, £6.49 ebook)

For a start, quite a lot of safety rules turn out not to be rules at all. There’s also the fact that the words “in the interests of safety”—so cunningly designed to shut down all argument—are often false, because the real interests lie elsewhere. Take all those IT consultants who grew rich by “protecting” us from the “Y2K bug”, which would supposedly cause an apocalyptic computer meltdown as the new millennium dawned. (More money was spent on this than on the Apollo space programme.) But in countries too poor to afford the protection, no such meltdown happened—and the whole thing was later described by the Wall Street Journal as “the hoax of the century”.

Most mysterious of all are the rules for which there’s no scientific evidence. Why mobile phones were banned on plane flights, for example, remains a mystery.

Some people might argue there’s nothing harmful in erring on the side of overcaution. The authors, though, wouldn’t be among them. For one thing, we’re forced to carry around the neurotic “worst-case” thinking. For another, our children are having much duller lives. For a third, it becomes impossible to know what really is dangerous.

 

So which guidelines can we believe? 

One justification for swaddling us in rules is that people appreciate “safety theatre”: the appearance that something is being done to keep us safe, even if it isn’t. But this, say the authors, has its dangers too. And to see what they might be, you need look no further than airports—as in this passage about the prohibition against toy guns on planes... 

Ok, even toy guns can look a bit like the real thing, and examining them might slow down security checks. However, Nerf guns—popular with eight-year-old boys—are made out of bright yellow, orange and blue plastic, and fire nothing more sinister than harmless foam-rubber “bullets”. Yet airlines still will not allow them on board.

In 2012, Patrick Cox’s son got a Nerf gun for his birthday during a visit to his uncle in Scotland. As the family passed through security at Edinburgh airport, they were stopped and asked to remove it from their hand luggage. Patrick’s son protested, ‘But it’s my birthday present,’ and his parents argued that it was clearly a toy. The security officer agreed that it was, indeed, clearly a toy. But it wasn’t allowed, she apologised, as she threw it into the bin. Rules are rules.

It's not only young Nerf gun fans who have suffered this kind of treatment. Buzz Lightyears and Star Wars models are regularly confiscated too. We contacted BAA, the body that owns and runs some of the UK’s largest airports, including Heathrow. In 2012, it was responsible for Edinburgh airport too. We asked how many Nerf guns had been confiscated and why they were banned. We were told they would ‘look into it’. Several weeks later, having heard nothing, we contacted them again. This time they said that they were ‘unable to comment on security matters’ and referred us to the Department for Transport, which, after some time, decided that it too could only confirm the advice on their website and insisted they wouldn’t be commenting further. That advice states that prohibited articles include: ‘Toy guns, replicas and imitation firearms capable of being mistaken for real weapons.’

The security officer at Edinburgh airport made it clear to the Cox family that she didn’t believe the Nerf gun could be mistaken for a real gun, but she confiscated it all the same. It was probably the same story at St Louis airport, where sewing enthusiast Phyllis May’s cloth monkey in a cowboy costume was relieved of his two-inch piece of gun-shaped plastic; and at Gatwick Airport, where officials disarmed Ken Lloyd’s small model soldier; or at Bradford airport, where five-year-old Alfie Waine was forced to hand over his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and at the German airport where officials wouldn’t let a four-year-old board his flight with a plastic light sabre.

These stories just keep coming. In early 2014, a child travelling through Heathrow Airport was carrying a doll of the Toy Story character Woody. The miniature cowboy was carrying an even more miniature gun. It was, you guessed it, confiscated…

This kind of confusion and arbitrariness is an inevitable consequence of security theatre, because no one is quite sure what they should be doing or indeed why they are doing it.

 

More Startling Facts from In the Interests of Safety:

  • In 2007, the snaps from 650 Christmas crackers destined for British troops in Afghanistan had to be removed because of a ban on “carrying explosives in RAF aircraft”.

  • The risk-assessment form to be completed by workers before they undertake certain key tasks on an oil rig is one page long. A risk-assessment form that had to be completed recently by teachers in Kent before they could take pupils to a nearby beach ran to 30 pages.

  • A woman was recently stopped from reading her Kindle in the viewing gallery of a British swimming pool because staff feared she was using it to take photos (it had no camera, and there's no law against taking photos of children anyway).

  • A big factor in the much-trumpeted rise in cybercrime is the fact that people are now encouraged to file their tax returns online. So, an offence that for centuries has been committed on paper (misfiling a return) is now part of the “cybercrime epidemic”.

Read more articles by James Walton here