"The more we try to avoid danger, the more dangerous life becomes. And it’s not even very much fun, living like that. So, if avoiding danger doesn’t keep us safe, what does?"
Are you safer riding your bike with or without a helmet? Do you run a greater risk of dying sky diving or driving your car to work? Is mountain biking a safer activity than gardening? You are safer riding a bike in an urban area without a helmet. You are more likely to die in a car wreck than throwing yourself out of a plane with billowing yards of fabric to stop you, and you will be safer rocketing around trails on a bike than rummaging among the dirt and seeds.
It seems a little counter intuitive doesn’t it? Don’t worry you are not alone in that conclusion. Warwick Cairns, a British author, explains in How to Live Dangerously that as a society we misunderstand danger and risk. He believes that by correcting this misperception, by living a little more dangerously, we will not only enjoy life more, but will be safer in the process.
The Big Idea
Embrace Danger... Selectively
"If you really want to live your life to the full, and if you want to do and see and feel all that it has to offer, then you need to push at your fear, to see how far it will let you go, and when and why and how it will let you do what you want."
Danger. What is the first image that comes to mind? You probably conjured up images of someone being reckless, or engaging in any activity that is the antithesis of safety. Being dangerous doesn’t mean you need to throw all caution to the wind. There are biological reasons for us to feel fear and they make sense. Fear helps us to learn to navigate danger, so that we can learn without getting into too much trouble. However, now our natural fear is often bombarded with the constant access to information that leads us to believe things are more dangerous than they appear. The author encourages us to “be dangerous” but to do so selectively, saying that we focus too much on the unimportant issues and obsessively fixate over the trivial and unlikely.
Many of the things we perceive as “dangerous” are safer than we acknowledge. For example,
there are only a handful of skydiving accidents every year, whereas there are thousands of fatal car wrecks. However, biologically we are wired to remember the sensational, the unique and gloss over the common place. That is why we remember 9/11 but the thousands that died in car wrecks yesterday barely register. We perceive more danger in jumping out of an airplane because, for most of us, it doesn’t happen frequently. Conversely, most of us travel some distance in a car every day and so the perceived danger lessens with time and exposure.
A study in the UK found that the number of children killed in car accidents actually went up after a law required children to wear seat belts. “The reason for this was that people felt their children were now properly protected, so they didn’t have to worry so much, and so they could afford to drive faster and more recklessly.” Turns out we don’t understand danger as much as we think we do.
Cairns says, “we ought to get out and live a bit more, and take a few more risks.” By learning to take certain risks he explains that we will live longer, happier, and safer lives.
Create Shared Space
"...the most effective way to make a thing safer is to make it more dangerous."
A dangerous road, ironically, can be the safest.
If you have ever driven on icy winter roads you know that you slow down, you are more attentive to details and conditions that commonly don’t get acknowledged. Cairn explains that because you understand the conditions are abnormal you pay more attention which helps you to drive safer.
Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer, took the increased attention principle to the extreme when he radically altered safety practices in his village. He removed all safety features. All of them. Everything that indicated what a driver was to do, indicating that each person, driver or pedestrian was responsible for their safety. He said, “When you don’t exactly know 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.” In Drachten, a Dutch village entirely void of traffic signs handles 22,000 cars a day worth of traffic while producing a single digit accident rate. Monderman called his experiment “shared space” as it required all participants, motorized or not, to be more aware of their surroundings to ensure their safety.
By empowering people to be more responsible for their safety, creating shared space, even the most dangerous of situations can be made safer.
"That’s what we do, all of us: we irrationally overestimate the dangers of the strange, the shocking, the disproportionately visible. We worry too much about the things that grab our attention and churn up our emotions; and we don’t worry nearly enough about the quieter but equally real dangers that lie unremarked in the familiar things of life."
I once heard that worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere. Despite the lack of evidence, we worry more today than ever before. The author explains that with our 24 hour news networks, “we feel fear when really we oughtn’t, and we imagine all sorts of terrors and perils lurking on every corner that either don’t exist at all or are about as likely to happen to you or to anyone you know as being struck down by a comet, or eaten by an escaped rhinoceros.”
Instead you should worry about things that are dangerous to us individually, like your health and wellbeing, things like actively preventing heart disease, or cancer through daily decisions. This book presented a unique challenge to apply. It challenged my paradigm of what I think is dangerous and forced me to compare them to reality. I can’t say I’ve radically altered my daily activities. I still wear my helmet while riding my bike. I realized I spend too much time looking at a screen and not enough time being active. It is time I lived a little more dangerously.
In the comments let us know how you plan to live a little more dangerously.