TALES OF OUR TIMES: How Safe Is ‘Safe?’

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

How Safe is “Safe?”

Though less gripping than murder scenes, news stories often cover safety issues. The pattern is standard: The first expert claims that something is not safe and another says the safety is top-notch.

Are airlines safe? Is a new medicine safe? Are we safe from terrorists?

The two experts hammer away at their unerring, inscrutable points, then go their separate ways, having said nothing useful about safety. 

What does it mean to be safe or unsafe? Let’s begin with something as safe as walking to work. Thousands of people have died from heart attacks or being hit by a car while walking to work. How can that be safe?

The briar patch of society tatters that cruel little word whose meaning is little known, yet is taken for granted – “safe.” In daily talk, “safe” and “unsafe” get tossed back and forth as black-and-white terms, as an either-or affair. In 100-percent terms, “safe” is always a lie, since nothing is guaranteed safe, not even walking to work.

In reality, “safe” and “unsafe” are two words much like “light” and “dark.” At times, “light” and “dark” have sharp meanings, as in “day” and “night.” At other times, they have shades of meaning, as in “light gray” and “dark gray.” “Safety” is not something one has or not; “safety” is a scale from one to 1,000. Walking to work tops out near 975 on the scale.

Now comes the insidious part of the “safe vs. unsafe” story. When public issues arise, the sharp meanings and the shades of meaning flip back and forth constantly without notice. In a flash, the meaning of “safe” shifts from absolute to relative, then back to absolute. The switch can come in the pause between a question and the reply. Thus is born the ritual of pointless talk about safety in the news.

Don’t forget, for anyone who is imagining “safe” in the absolute sense, “safe” is a falsity. No wonder the least mention of safety brings more angst than understanding.       

Can we do better? No doubt we need to try, but how?

A place to start is simply to tell people that “safe” is relative and perfectly safe is a fiction. Now tell a plane full of people that they are “relatively safe” from crashing. The trouble with telling the truth is that “relatively safe” is very scary and sounds evasive. Safer than what? … dim light, poor health, poisoned meat?

Add in all the details needed to tell an accurate story, and the truth sounds even murkier. Such a confounding maze of words must be hiding something dreadful.

Safety is vital to the world, but describing it is an ever new mystery.

Many laws and company rules these days require verification that a proposed action is safe. The goal is worthy. Now furnish the proof in a world where the meaning of “safe” flips back and forth, the 100-percent meaning is not achievable, and the details mimic a maze.

Lengthy disagreement is assured. Dark and stormy suspicions are certain.  

Nor would things work better for anyone if the rule were changed to say a proposal had to be “relatively safe.” The hassle would surely be worse. And saying nothing about safety is no help at all either.   

I have no grand answer. Yet, I always believe people are better off seeing the difficulty of a first-class dilemma, instead of presuming who is least concerned about truth.

Whatever their aims, all sides gain by a better grasp of safety concerns. No special interest, either large or small, spreads light by raising barriers against that knowledge.

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