A young Briton dies trying to cross Greenland in a blizzard. Another goes missing while trying to sail the Pacific. Three climbers narrowly escape death in a mob fight on Mount Everest. Three sailors plan to pedalo across the Atlantic. That is all inside a week.
Chaucer noted that when April awakens into summer “people long to go on pilgrimages”. Nowadays they long to go on reckless jaunts. This is the season when crazy tourism goes viral, when “gappers” dream up dangerous adventures and when no holiday is complete without some display of machismo. The latest to boom are base jumping, hang-gliding, cave-diving and cycling across deserts.
We once thought this was merely a British craving to escape the Health and Safety Executive. If boys can no longer dive into a local swimming pool, they will dive off a Greek cliff. If they are not allowed to ride a horse without a crash helmet and sack of insurance certificates, they will ride a bull in Pamplona. Take adventure out of Britain and you take Britain out of adventure. It is like casino banking. It goes overseas.
Back in time, taking risk was life and death. Miners, sailors, builders, quarrymen suffered appalling injuries to support their families. To early explorers danger was the price of discovery. Columbus would not have set sail in a pedalo. Edmund Hillary would not have climbed Everest without oxygen.
Risking death as a pastime would have seemed irrational, except for sports with origins in military prowess, such as hunting, boxing and fencing.
The mad and mostly illegal sport of base jumping – from a cliff with a parachute – now sees some 15 deaths a year. One jump in 60 is said to end in a fatality and a successful jump is “one you survive”. A high risk of death or injury attends pursuits such as motorbiking, big-wave surfing, altitude climbing and, a new craze, street luging. People even go sailing off the Somalian coast to defy the pirates.
All these people are seeking thrills which, by definition, they cannot find at home. Home nowadays is beyond tame. School pupils cannot swim in Snowdonia lakes without trained lifesavers on hand. Children cannot go kayaking without attendant motor boats. You need a safety course to go on a hill walk. Around all such activity hovers a dark cloud of negligence lawyers and compensation brokers. One leading firm tells customers the first thing to do after any accident is “prove another person was responsible” – presumably before bothering a doctor.
The idea that a personal quest for risk is something that cannot be suppressed but merely displaced is taboo in health and safety circles. The risk theorist John Adams of UCL has long championed what is known as the Peltzman effect, whereby people behave less cautiously where they feel more protected and vice versa. To Adams, “everyone has a risk thermostat, and may adjust it to the risk level he likes, regardless of the experts’ best efforts to decrease the risk”. Attempts to stifle or criminalise that thermostat merely induces a shift to other activities, often in ways that harm third parties. (It is said to be why politicians are so prone to adultery.)
Adams’ chief example has long been the most dangerous thing most people do, which is use a public road. Making them truly safe – with barriers down the middle or by banning motorbikes – is considered politically unacceptable. To Adams, most other methods, such as seatbelts, helmets and signals, may make roads safer for drivers. But this increases their risk-taking, leading to more danger for cyclists and walkers.
In the same spirit, the skydiving pioneer Bill Booth noted that “the safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take, in order to keep the fatality rate constant”. They are not trying to die, but to maintain their level of thrill. It is a basic instinct.
Safety is now almost as big an industry as defence, and as dependent on irrationality for its sustenance. An army of inspectors, designers, equipment suppliers and roads engineers have a vested interest in denying risk compensation theory. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents excoriates Adams, retorting that “seatbelts save lives”, without considering the lives of the wearers’ victims. Any life saved is “worth” it, whatever the cost.
Risk assessment feeds on the resulting hysteria. Its practitioners increasingly take refuge in a belief that humans can be programmed for ever safer behaviour. Hence the idiot “risk assessment” box-ticking familiar to today’s corporate employees.
The risk statistician David Spiegelhalter regularly points to some of the madder outcomes of this unreason. After 9/11, 1,500 extra road deaths were attributed to people turning from planes to more dangerous car travel. During the last bird flu hysteria, so much money and medical attention was diverted from ordinary healthcare that hundreds of extra deaths were ascribed to it (and none to bird flu).
The safety industry regularly proclaims itself in favour of “proportionate” risk – only “as safe as necessary”. But necessary is always an upward ratchet. I have never come across an HSE inspector demanding a reduction in safety. Regular booklets and press releases seek to demolish “health and safety myths”. But this is an industry that depends on an ever wider umbrella of hyper-security.
This lobby has no interest in risk. It will never seek to make domestic adventure tourism more adventurous, let alone more risky. I doubt if the HSE would sponsor a bungee competition or a helmet-free cycle race. The one risk it recognises is what would happen if there were an accident (nowadays always an “incident”) after it had reined in its storm troops.
There are some risks I would gladly see displaced overseas. I would rather a hedge-fund manager got his adrenaline rush from Hawaiian surf or an African cave than by blowing my pension fund on a sub-prime derivative. I would rather a minister indulged himself in a Bali nightclub than risked all on an NHS sub-contract. Dangerous driving could well be displaced to the Sahara desert. If testosterone seeks an outlet in foreign climes so be it.
Whether young Britons are really being compelled to seek risk abroad by over-regulation at home is hard to prove. But pressing up against some danger threshold must be part of the human makeup. It cannot be repressed by bureaucracy, or it will merely resurface elsewhere. We admire young people who seek to do ostensibly stupid things abroad. We probably do so because we have suppressed their freedom to find such thrills, challenges and risks closer to home.
Simon Jenkins. This article was published in the Guardian on Sat 04May 2013.