Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession with Safety Is Putting Us All at Risk

Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession with Safety Is Putting Us All at Risk

by Tracey Brown, Michael Hanlon


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Can a cell phone cause a major explosion at a gas station? What would happen if the 3 oz rule at airports was abolished? And are all the child protection measures really making children safer?

These rules exist in the name of our own protection, but has anyone ever stopped to consider exactly how and why? In Playing by the Rules, authors Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon dig deeper to discover the real reasons behind many of the global safety rules and security regulations we obey without question, and their conclusions range from the surprisingly pointless to shockingly dangerous.

Does it make sense to surrender your nail clippers to board a plane equipped with an axe on the back of the cockpit door? And is there really a good reason to prevent an adult from swimming in a lake more than a foot deep? This engrossing study will inspire readers to question the people and organizations who come up with life's little guidelines — and empower you to live life to the full.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492620716
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 723,309
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

TRACEY BROWN is the Director of Sense About Science, a science education charity in the UK. She has led award-winning campaigns to stop misleading medical clains, including some that resulted in the UK's 2013 Defamation Bill. In 2015-2016, she will be completing a fellowship at Princeton University in New Jersey. She frequently travels to the U.S. and around Europe for speaking events and conferences.

Read an Excerpt


"Go back! Go back!" chanted the safety sentinels from their canoe patrols along Lake Michigan. It was the summer of 2012. "You have passed the safe swimming depth."

"But we're only up to our knees."

"Yes. But we must instruct you to stay at the safe swimming depth."

"But there's been a drought. The safe swimming depth is a puddle. It's only three feet deep where you are. Why can't we swim there?"

"It's not safe."


"One of our patrol canoes might run into you."

Over the past twenty years, new rules have mushroomed "for your safety and security," and they have sneaked into new parts of our lives. These rules are making life more complicated, more expensive, and more frustrating than it needs to be. If you are traveling through an airport with carry-on baggage, you will already have discarded your bottle of shampoo and abandoned your water (only to find yourself waiting in line for replacements at twice the price on the other side of security). You will have kicked yourself for leaving your good nail file in your bathroom bag, as this will now be at the bottom of a ten-gallon drum, along with discarded snow globes, bottles of aftershave, key rings, and a variety of artifacts and souvenirs whose plane-hijacking potential could never have been anticipated by their owners.

If you visited the last Summer Olympics or other major sporting event, you probably had your outside food and drinks confiscated on arrival. If you have ever tried to find out which hospital a relative has been taken to, boarded a Greyhound bus with a penknife in your backpack, taken more than two small children to a public swimming pool, or dropped by to help with reading classes at your local school, you will quite likely have discovered that, in the interests of safety and security, you can't.

Most of us, in one area of our lives or another, have encountered safety and security rules that appear to defy logic and common sense. For our own safety, we are guided out of danger that we never knew we were in. Guards are employed along the shores of American lakes to make sure that we do no more than paddle. Cyclists can't leave their bikes near government buildings in some international cities because of fears the frames might have been turned into bombs. Children have to use more complex passwords on their school intranets than the U.S. government used to defend its nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War.*

This safety imperative is confounding and intimidating. It regularly silences our better judgment. Youth soccer coaches enforce rules they don't really agree with because they don't want to appear to be encouraging pedophiles. Passengers worry that if they seem less than cooperative, they will be deemed a security risk and banned from boarding their flights-and they're probably right. Many of us don't question the increasing regulation of the Internet, for fear that to do so looks like a vote for pornography, child abuse, or fraud. Any politician or public official who suggests relaxing a safety rule courts career suicide.

We also worry that there are hidden dangers we cannot perceive. We imagine that these rules must be necessary and that someone somewhere has evidence that shows they are making us safer. However, go in search of that evidence and you will find conflicting stories about why safety rules are imposed, as well as huge disparities concerning their justification. In some cases, there is compelling evidence that the rules do indeed make us safer. For others, the evidence is contradictory, or based on a single, dubious study, or even shows that the rules put us in more danger, not less. In many cases, there is simply no evidence one way or the other. There is sometimes, though, an unwelcome alliance of official self-importance, media hysteria, and commercial exploitation, with the result that many safety rules enjoy an authority they don't deserve.

This makes us angry, which was why we decided to write this book. We first met more than a decade ago, when Michael was a newspaper science editor and Tracey was persuading scientists to speak up in public debates about research. Over the following ten years, we maintained a conversation that focused on some of the most controversial science stories in the news and the evidence behind them. Then, one day, we both attended a conference about science, health, and reason. During a lull in proceedings, we started passing a scrap of paper back and forth. On it, we competed over who had engaged in the most ridiculous argument about safety rules. At the top of Tracey's list was being told she couldn't leave her son at his swimming lesson. Michael countered that he was once threatened with arrest for contemplating an unseasonal dip in one of the Great Lakes. We also discovered that we both like our hamburgers rare, something that regularly results in debates with waiters about what we are allowed to order.

Over the following year, our little competition developed into a series of phone calls and emails to get to the bottom of mysterious safety measures and then into more formal requests for evidence and investigations into their origins. We suddenly found ourselves writing a book.

Our core philosophy is ask for evidence. It's that simple. If some local or national official or "the Man" declares that we are not allowed to do something that seems perfectly reasonable, then we ask: Why? On what basis does this rule exist? Where are the cases of people getting into trouble while doing this? Give us the statistics. Is this rule really making us safer? What is it costing us? Why do different countries have different rules? When asking these questions, we have found that safety rules are not as unassailable as you might think, and your questioning can have an impact on them. This book will tell you what you can do. It will show you the importance of demanding that safety rules must be justified and based on firm evidence. In turn, this will help you decide which rules are necessary and which should be challenged.

You do not need to be an expert to make that challenge. The questions we have asked are probably ones you have wondered about yourself. You might have asked: "Why am I not allowed to take my child in there?" "Do you really need to confiscate my water bottle?" "Do I need to be protected from French cheese?" or "Why on earth is someone shouting at me for swimming in this lake?" If the person is telling you the safety rule with a rueful smile and shaking their head in a moment of shared exasperation at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, then you are seeing the safety cult at work.

In this book, you'll meet quite a lot of this kind of unquestioned, cultlike safety and many examples of people preferring rules to responsibility. We share our quests for answers about rules and warnings, and challenge the officials who make them.

Sometimes getting answers is difficult. That is why we want to share what we have discovered. We are not professional risk assessors or actuaries. But we do have a lot of experience in seeking out evidence and challenging the authorities who should be using it. We know whom to put on the spot when faced with a particularly onerous or poorly thought-out rule and how to interpret the answers they give.

Our attempts to establish the origins of these rules reveal that many of the things we are forced to do in the interests of safety:

•are a waste of time and money; they look important but they just don't work

•have unintended consequences, such as causing more deaths on the roads and prompting parents to lie to Facebook

•are used as excuses to shirk responsibility; rules at recreational centers and age restrictions on toys are designed to dodge liability, not improve users' safety

•are covers for vested interests, such as kennel owners who like restrictions on people taking their dogs on vacation

•distract from real danger and generate cynicism about the measures that do work, such as memorizing the way to an emergency exit

This is not a contrarian book. Sometimes we have found that a rule does make sense, that there is good evidence for it. Where sensible health and safety rules (and there are many of them) have saved lives or limbs, they should be applauded. Contrary to the common refrain, health and safety rules, on the whole, are not crazy at all. Occasionally, we have even discovered a need for more rules and more safety.

Finally, this book is not driven by the need to be difficult. At the end of a restaurant meal, both of us are the kind of people who will look at the bill to see whether we have been charged for the bread basket, but neither of us would get out the calculator and ask, "Who had the lobster?" That puts us in the same category as the hundreds of people whose experiences inform the following pages, people who have been stopped from doing ordinary things in the name of safety and security rules, and have wondered: "In whose interests might those rules be, exactly?"

* In fact it is worse than that. Until the late 1970s, the launch codes for the U.S. Minuteman I nuclear missile system were all set at "00000000," the thinking being that if they were needed in a hurry, the code needed to be instantly accessible!

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Who Could Be against Safety?,
Chapter 2: Something Must Be Done!,
Chapter 3: Will It Really Go Bang?,
Chapter 4: Safety Nets,
Chapter 5: Where's the Reality Check?,
Chapter 6: Sorry, Rules Are Rules,
Chapter 7: When Safety Creates Danger,
Chapter 8: More Safety, Please!,
Chapter 9: Unlocking a Locked Gate,
Chapter 10: Reclaiming Safety with Evidence,

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