Safe

I’ve been thinking about all the ways I learned to keep myself safe and how in the end, they didn’t keep me safe at all.  In fact, my behavior has posed the biggest risk to me that I’ve actually known.

In my search for answers, I uncovered an old essay by Malcolm Gladwell entitled, Big and Bad, that drives home my discovery [emphasis below is mine].

Ostensibly it’s about S.U.V.s, but like all good writing it’s about so much more.

Some excerpts:

“But that’s the puzzle of what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being safe…

‘The metric that people use is size,’ says Stephen Popiel, a vice-president of Millward Brown Goldfarb, in Toronto, one of the leading automotive market-research firms.   ‘The bigger something is, the safer it is.   In the consumer’s mind, the basic equation is, If I were to take this vehicle and drive it into this brick wall, the more metal there is in front of me the better off I’ll be.’

This is a new idea, and one largely confined to North America.   In Europe and Japan, people think of a safe car as a nimble car.   That’s why they build cars like the Jetta and the Camry, which are designed to carry out the driver’s wishes as directly and efficiently as possible.   In the Jetta, the engine is clearly audible.   The steering is light and precise.   The brakes are crisp.   The wheelbase is short enough that the car picks up the undulations of the road.   The car is so small and close to the ground, and so dwarfed by other cars on the road, that an intelligent driver is constantly reminded of the necessity of driving safely and defensively.   An S.U.V. embodies the opposite logic.   The driver is seated as high and far from the road as possible.   The vehicle is designed to overcome its environment, not to respond to it…” 

Jettas are safe because they make their drivers feel unsafe.   S.U.V.s are unsafe because they make their drivers feel safe.   That feeling of safety isn’t the solution; it’s the problem…”

‘There are unexpected events that at any moment in time can come out and impact them—an oil patch up ahead, an eighteen-wheeler turning over, something falling down.  People feel that the elements of the world out of their control are the ones that are going to cause them distress.

Of course, those things really aren’t outside a driver’s control: an alert driver, in the right kind of vehicle, can navigate the oil patch, avoid the truck, and swerve around the thing that’s falling down… The trouble with the S.U.V. ascendancy is that it excludes the really critical component of safety: the driver

In psychology, there is a concept called learned helplessness, which arose from a series of animal experiments in the nineteen-sixties at the University of Pennsylvania.   Dogs were restrained by a harness, so that they couldn’t move, and then repeatedly subjected to a series of electrical shocks.   Then the same dogs were shocked again, only this time they could easily escape by jumping over a low hurdle.   But most of them didn’t; they just huddled in the corner, no longer believing that there was anything they could do to influence their own fate.   Learned helplessness is now thought to play a role in such phenomena as depression and the failure of battered women to leave their husbands, but one could easily apply it more widely.   We live in an age, after all, that is strangely fixated on the idea of helplessness: we’re fascinated by hurricanes and terrorist acts and epidemics like sars—situations in which we feel powerless to affect our own destiny.   In fact, the risks posed to life and limb by forces outside our control are dwarfed by the factors we can control.   Our fixation with helplessness distorts our perceptions of risk.”