Defining Safety

The safer we get, the more we worry. We are blessed to live in an era of antibiotics, life-saving drugs and miracle surgeries. In my lifetime we have cured polio, transplanted hearts and developed MRI machines. There are problems for sure: food safety, highway deaths, drug use and crime. But the statistics show we are living longer, healthier and more productive lives, and yet we worry more. Why?

Our ability to measure risk in smaller and smaller parts per million has not kept pace with our ability to understand these miniscule numbers or do anything about them. Fear is a tyrant. It can motivate—helping to keep us safe when we lock our doors and look both ways crossing the street. Fear can also immobilize, as in the flight or fight response. When we are afraid, the part of our brain that controls instinct takes over to send signals to our muscles—getting us ready to run away or stand and fight.

Entire cities can get gripped in this type of paralyzing fear. People worry about taking a trip through an unsafe neighbourhood. We avoid unsafe locations if possible. Tourists don’t flock to unsafe cities. Nor do businesses locate in dangerous places.

“Safety” can include freedom from physical harm, worry, the ill-effects of pollution, crime and congestion. Being safe also means freedom to do things—be mobile, enjoy entertainment, engage in fitness activities and so on. Workers are more productive in safe working environments, knowing they have health care, pensions and that their families will be looked after in the future. Similarly, social well-being is enhanced in a city where citizens feel safe. People are more likely to interact with and help each other if they can find safe places in which to congregate.

One of the core mandates that politicians and public administrators have is keeping citizens safe. There seems to be agreement from both the left and the right of the political spectrum that defence, integrity of borders, education, health, the environment, crime and other issues are priorities.

One specific way in which we can do that is to improve our ability to protect the personal safety of our citizens. This kind of personal safety can encompass road and highway safety, crime, the food and water supply, health care and so on.

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