Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Natasha Richardson and the culture of fear

Here we go again. A famous person dies from something and all of our lives must change.

I didn’t know much about Natasha Richardson. She looks beautiful and people seem to think she was a good actress. Her death, as sad as any other, is perplexing. Perhaps there are those who worked on her before her death who have an idea of why what seemed like a minor fall caused such severe trauma to her head leading to her death. It seems to me based on anecdotal evidence only, that people suspect that there was a problem before her fall and it was just waiting to happen. But, in this media mad world, she has become a part of the culture of fear.

Like most people, I’ve taken some blows to the head. When I was a child I fell maybe 6 feet when a tree branch cracked while I was swinging upside down. It hurt, but nothing much happened to me. In high school, an idiot slugged me in the back of the head for no reason whatsoever. It hurt for a few minutes and then felt better. Wrestling around with friends occasionally led to accidental blows to the skull, but never with any grave result. Those times, we were the idiots.

I even had a bizarre ski accident when I was gliding in for the day and was struck from the rear by another idiot. My arm flew in front of me as I tumbled forward and my pole stuck into the ground vertically. My forehead followed suite, smashing into the end of the firmly planted pole. I wasn’t knocked unconscious but was laid out. I crawled off the slope and slowly walked to my car where I sat for a half hour before driving home. That was the biggest blow I ever took but it had no lasting effect. It had no lasting effect. It had no lasting effect. No lasting effect. No lasting effect. No . . .

At least not that I know about.

The question comes up, of course, in this situation, is whether and to what extent the government will decide that we can’t make decisions for ourselves and they will require us to wear head gear. This is only part of a larger argument, of course, as to how much the government should be protecting us in the first place.

Let’s be clear. It is axiomatic that the states have the power to make us do what they want when it comes to our safety under what is sometimes called the police power. Due to the huge expansion of the meaning of the commerce clause in the constitution, the federal government has extraordinary power to do so also as long as they claim it has something to do with interstate commerce.

But even though that ship has long sailed, we can still talk about whether it should be that way. Start with motorcycles. Some states require motorcycle riders to wear helmets and they also specify the qualities of those helmets. For example, in New York, those ornamental biker gang helmets that look like Sergeant Shultz should be wearing it, are no good.

I once researched the probability of getting injured on a motorcycle as compared to when in an automobile. It’s harder than it looks as real good statistics for it are difficult to find. It suffices to say that your odds are far worse on the motorcycle than in a car. As far as I could tell there was roughly sixteen times more likelihood of injury and four times the likelihood of death, or thereabouts. That there is a huge difference is of course, obvious (although the otherwise intelligent motorcycle rider I was arguing with it about didn’t think so).

Personally, I think you would have to be crazy not to wear a motorcycle helmet. But once we accept that it is okay for the government to tell us we must wear one, and agree on how dangerous it is not to do so, it should not be surprising when some legislator asks why they are allowed to ride a motorcycle at all? I’m not advocating that – I’m looking at the future of our increasingly over-regulated world where choices are routinely taken away from us.

Think about it this way. In a car, we are all required to wear seatbelts in the front seat. We are required to have kids under 14 (NY) wear them in the back seats. Additionally, the automobile manufacturers must follow strict guidelines as to the crashworthiness of the vehicle itself, on the front and sides. We also have in new cars – air bags. You would not be allowed to ride down the road without a windshield with safety glass and bumpers that could withstand at least a minor bump.

Now, take motorcycles. You are riding down the street without the protection of a car around you, or a strong windshield. There is no seatbelt at all. Moreover, you are on two wheels, which means you can easily slip and crash, unlike riding in a car which is quite difficult to turn over. A minor accident won't cause whiplash; it will have you flying dozens of feet or more through the air onto a hard pavement or into other vehicles. This, of course, is the reason that insurance companies don’t have to give no-fault coverage to motorcycles and why we know so many people who have been seriously injured on one or even fatally injured. Actually, I don't think motorcycles riders should be allowed to sue for personal injuries in most cases because they are voluntarily increasing their risk.

Motorcycles have been around as since the 1800s, so it will be difficult for the pols to get rid of them, but we’ve only started doing things like banning cigarettes in restaurants recently. It is growing. One day, some politician is going to look at the obvious danger of motorcycles and they will ban them for kids, say those under 18. Of course, once they ban motorcycles for kids, everyone will notice how much their death rate goes down. And then they will make it for those under 25. After all, the insurance companies know how bad drivers are under 25 (or, in my case, under 75). And then, possibly they will ban them for everyone. If you haven’t noticed the government has no problem with telling you that you aren’t allowed to risk your life when they don’t want you to. First they made restaurants have smoke free rooms or ventilation systems before they started outright banning them in public indoor spots. So, if it seems farfetched now, wait a few years.

But, once the government makes us all safer by getting rid of motorcycles (I think there would be an armed rebellion right now; they need a few more years to keep regulating the freedom out of us) they might up the ante with cars. Believe it.

For example, it is also an undeniable fact that the death rate for cars goes up dramatically as you add teenage boys to the car. When you put four teenage boys in a car you are taking tremendous risks. As a former teenage boy who went with a fairly reasonable bunch of friends, I can tell you that we drove like morons, sometimes racing around in traffic, even on ice. Would a law forbidding new male drivers to have other young men as passengers surprise anyone in a world where little kids are suspended from school for hugging or kissing a friend.

How about helmets for kids in cars? If kids need them on skis and the risk is so low, why not cars? Despite the ridiculous fear mongering of the media,the serious head trauma from car accidents dwarfs those from skiing accidents. Don't think it's going to happen, huh?

Take these statistics from a website – www.caregiver.org - which I’ve summarized below:

There are two million head injuries of all types (including skull and facial fractures) every year (U. S.), 1.5 million are nonfatal traumatic brain injuries, not requiring hospitalization. About the same number sustain a brain injury with loss of consciousness but not severe enough to result in long-term institutionalization. Another 300,000 require hospitalization, with 99,000 suffering a lasting disability. About 56,000 people die each year from traumatic brain injury (“TMI”). TMI accounts for roughly 34% of all injury deaths in the United States. It affects males at twice the rate of females. Men are also more likely to suffer severe injuries. Kids 15 to 24 are the biggest risks, but it starts increasing again for those over 60. Brain injuries from motor vehicle accidents have actually been substantially reduced since the 80s (down 25%), no doubt due to increased seat belt use and increased vigilance against drunk or impaired driving. Firearm related TMI has dramatically increased in the same period of time (down 13%). About 5% to 10% of skiing accidents result in head injuries.

I can’t help but notice that the website changed its way to describe the statistics when it came to skiing. Instead of saying what percentage of TMI was related to an activity, it said what percentage of skiing accidents resulted in head injury (but not traumatic brain injury). This was a little disingenuous and made ski accidents seem more dangerous than they deserve. For example, where about 56,000 people are dying from TMI over the course of a year, ski deaths from all reasons average about 39 every year – in other words an infintissmal percentage. And that includes deaths from avalanches and people skiing off the slopes.

Moreover, although helmet use has greatly increased, it has not been shown to have lowered deaths. Even advocates of helmet use recognize that it reduces minor injuries, not major ones, and that it almost certainly increases reckless skiing.

That won’t stop the media from writing articles suggesting that mandatory helmet wearing is coming for skiiers. I hope it won’t. I also hope that they won’t start requiring kids to wear helmets in cars, although it will clearly save many lives. Some things should just remain our choice.

When my daughter was growing up, I made the choice that she did not have to ski with a helmet or ride a bike with one (unless a friend was over and they had to wear one). No doubt many parents (let me risk the usual charge of sexism and say more mothers than fathers) will say that was irresponsible. These are the same parents who told me the other day it was irresponsible when I let my daughter take care of herself at 16 when I went on vacation (she had her mother around and friends families nearby – I have my limits too) or told me shouldn’t be allowed to walk to a nearby friend’s house at night even though we lived in one of the safest areas in the whole country.

Peer pressure is powerful, and even though I often bucked the trend as much as I could, I hoped to my kid’s benefit in developing resourcefulness, self sufficiency and real self-esteem (not the self-esteem educators and parents seem to think come to your kid by constantly telling them they are wonderful and always win), I admit that I sometimes limited her based on other parents and cultural fears. It’s not that I think all these people are bad parents, but I do believe that our culture has taken a very wrong turn in the freedom we deny our kids out of fear.

The future will likely increase our fear of injuries the way 24 hour cable coverage of every little white girl who gets kidnapped has convinced parents that there are predators everywhere even though non-family kidnappings are pretty much as rare as they ever were. They can now put a chip in your dog with GPS, so that you can find it when they are lost. How soon before we do that with babies? How soon before other parents tell you that you are irresponsible if you implant GPS in your kid, or before the state or federal government tells us that you must?

That much predictive ability I can’t claim. Maybe our grandkids, maybe their kids. But, it’s going to happen. Every day someone else surprises me with how laissez faire people are about government control. But, step by step . . . .

Soon I'll be wearing an aluminum foil hat and checking the skies for helicopters with men in black suits.


  1. Anonymous9:06 AM

    Me thinketh you cry wolf! We will let government tax us, our booze, and our cigarettes, but no one is taking away our rides. That's freedom, man, that's what defines America, man... you know, like John Wayne and shit....

  2. Anonymous9:06 AM

    Me thinketh you cry wolf! We will let government tax us, our booze, and our cigarettes, but no one is taking away our rides. That's freedom, man, that's what defines America, man... you know, like John Wayne and shit....

  3. Anonymous10:46 AM

    Of course you are right. (Wake up, Bear)
    It is the government's best interest to limit freedom as it gives it more power.
    The areas of individual freedom that have been taken away(stolen) since we were children is staggering.
    The trend will continue and it will always be wrapped in the admirable (to some) goal of increasing safety, fairness or increasing sensitivity.

    Spot on, David!!

  4. Who is surprised that the guy from Montana thinks the government has too much power.

    Tell your people in the commune I thank them for their support.

    Now, surrender your weapons!

  5. Did anyone notice that two guys with the screen name "Bear" both commented at the exact same time in the exact same way? Now that's just spooky.

    I refer both Bears to my defender from the West and hurl Ben Franklin like Captain America's mighty shield (even if Frankin probably didn't really write this and Captain America's shield was the stupidest weapon ever brandished by a super hero):

    "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

    or, better, as I have coined:

    "Give me liberty, or, at least give me something to eat while we're waiting."

  6. Anonymous8:48 AM

    I would point out to my paranoid liberterian friends, a)the world history of revolution by poor suppressed populations (though the results weren't too happy, but that's a whole 'nother story), and b) our strong American distaste for restrictions on personal freedom. While I agree that we live in an era that is pushing the limits, beware, I say beware, the power of the people.

  7. Whoooa! Not looking for a revolution of the people, just think when Congress gets a law in committee someone should say -- is this a choice people should make? And often, I hope they say -- you know, it is.

  8. Anonymous9:56 AM

    Consider for a moment the the quatitative difference between the interaction that our grandparents had with the Federal Govt (or local govt for that matter) compared to our current interaction. Basically if they didn't shoot someone or stael ahorse they could pretty much engage in any commercial, sporting or recreational activity without being prosecuted, investigated licensed or regulated. Compare that to today. An we are going further and faster in the direction of govt micro-managing our lives. Part of the problem is boiling frog syndrome.
    And, Bear, while you think people would howl now if their rides were taken away you may be right-- but it won't be done that way. There will be a slew of new (as David says) safety regulations that for the most part will be heralded. Then they may further restrict the roads one can ride on and perhaps the times of day. When they are finally banned it won't be a leap but, sadly, a baby step.

  9. In other words,

    "This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper."

    Let's hope that's the last time I quote T. S. Eliot. Never liked him.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .