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Return of the Safety Nazis

Not content with picking on folks their own size, they’re now going after our children.

By 2.9.05

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Imagine wintertime without sleigh-riding, snowball fights, and piping hot coffee. Bleak, I would think. But if the Safety Nazis have their way we won't have to imagine it much longer. We'll be living it.

Not content with picking on folks their own size, the Safety Nazis are now going after our children. You've heard, I hope, of the Safety Nazis: government and private busybodies whose sole objective is to suck all the fun and adventure out of life so as to protect us (the government) from frivolous lawsuits by us (the people). In their latest campaign to round all of life's sharp corners, some local governments are banning the age-old, wintertime tradition of snow sledding in public parks. If they could, they doubtless would ban hot cocoa drinks too because of the potential risk of spillage.

How can such an absurd regulation come to pass? Two reasons: the efficacy of their compulsive campaign to protect the population from harm, and spineless government fears of litigation. Both legitimate concerns when considered dispassionately. And both rendered absurd by over-reaction.

In recent years the Safety Nazis have been extremely busy criminalizing a number of victimless behaviors, including smoking in most public places, and not wearing a seatbelt (abortion is legal, not wearing a seatbelt is a crime). These professional yellow-bellies are convinced that only at zero risk will the populace be truly secure. They spend their pitiful lives envisioning the horrors of cell phones, electro-magnetic fields, biological weapons, mad cow disease, and genetically engineered foods, and would like nothing better than to spread the paranoia around, or at least entomb their fears in our law books. But the sad truth is, like all fanatics, they will never be satisfied, not even with edicts prohibiting us from drinking coffee, sunbathing, and eating cheeseburgers.

Nothing illustrates the hopelessness of the Safety Nazi position like the issue of airbags. How they fought to force automobile manufacturers to install airbags in all new cars. Then, by a cruel and ironic twist of fate, airbags turned out to be killers. Here then is the Safety Nazi paradox: something meant to reduce the risk of death ultimately kills you. Or causes harm like the numerous dangerous, costly and unnecessary medical procedures doctors are forced to perform because to fail to do so leaves them open to malpractice litigation. It's enough to drive a Safety Nazi to his padded bunker.

(To show just how arbitrary all of this is, my home state of Illinois forces responsible adult motorists to buckle up, but allows motorcyclists to careen around its highways on two-wheeled suicide machines bareheaded.)

This mania seems but a logical outgrowth of a Nanny State that since FDR's regime has been busily sucking the last dram of independence and self-reliance from the American character. Children, especially, are being adversely affected by such pambying. Every time we let the Nanny in we give mothers and fathers another excuse to hand over their responsibilities, allowing some cold, inept, and malcontented agency marm to see after the welfare of our kids. Of course, it's not just our children the Nanny is looking out for. She's also got her dark eye focused on the ignorant and weak. She will go to any extreme to stave off the cold forces of natural selection, to keep the sickening herd from thinning out one iota.

Meanwhile the boys and girls who dare tote their toboggans to places like National Park in Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, face the wrath of the town judiciary (and the charge of disorderly conduct, and a $25 fine) for sledding where their ancestors have frolicked for centuries. Proponents of the ban point to cases like the one in 2000, in which a Greenwich, Connecticut man won $6 million from the local government after the pinhead injured himself sledding. A good example of the completely inane mindset of the participants in this circus can be found in a recent story in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Carrie Conrad, whose $150,000 lawsuit prompted the enforcement of the Phillipsburg ban, doesn't believe sleigh-riding should be outlawed. She said she thinks the town should offer children a safe place to sled. Her 6-year-old son broke his leg when he hit a white-painted foul pole while sledding in a town park. "I grew up in this neighborhood. I used to sleigh-ride on that same hill," she said.

Perhaps the city should have installed airbags around its foul poles. Oh, that's right. Airbags kill.

In Risk and Reason: Safety, Law, and the Environment Cass R. Sunstein argues that decision-makers often over-respond to temporary fears, and the result is a situation of hysteria and neglect -- and unnecessary illness and death. Sunstein suggests we conduct a simple cost-benefit analysis before we go off half-cocked and ban activities like sleigh-riding. The problem with this is there is no real benefit generated by sledding, outside of the human happiness benefit, and economists will have a tough time putting a price tag on that. Here's a thought. Rather than a cost-benefit test, suppose we employ a little common sense? Or take a tip from the American Academy of Pediatrics which "cautions parents to supervise children as they sled and to make sure that the hills they choose are free of obstructions and away from traffic."

Life is not risk-free. Nor would we want it to be. It matters not whether you are leaving one job for another or stumbling across a crowded dance floor to introduce yourself to the woman of your dreams, life has its share of hazards. At the risk of sounding like Dial-a-Cliché, adventure is the zesty spice of life. Take away the spice and you are left with a plain boiled potato. And not even a cup of hot cocoa to wash it down.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.