I have started questioning proposals that use safety as a justification. As an example, back in May my company recently updated their safety policy regarding car parks? One of the new rules is that you must reverse into your parking spot. I’m not a great fan of having to reverse in between other cars and generally find it easier to drive straight in and reverse straight out as do most people but the rules are the rules and the rules have now been signed off on by the HSA (Health and Safety Authority in Ireland). Compliance with the rules is generally high except for a few visitors who don’t read the notices.

I did a google search (see below) and found very little evidence on whether reversing into a space is actually safer. There were some statistics on the number of accidents which occur in car parks but no real evidence as to how many would have been prevented if everybody reversed in.

Reasons people claim it is safer include:

                You are reversing into a designated parking spot as opposed to reversing out onto the “road”

                Modern cars all come with parking sensors to assist you, so it is not much trouble

Reasons people claim it is not worth the effort include:

                I have an electric car and it needs to be charged at the front

                If parking at a supermarket you must drive into the spot so you can load your shopping into the boot when leaving

                We all spend most of our lives driving forward and are more used to it than reversing

                If you use proper observation techniques reversing out is safe

                It will cause more bumps and scrapes

I spoke to someone in the health and safety authority of the UK and they gave me two instances where they would strongly mandate reverse parking.

  • When the plant might need to be evacuated rapidly such as for a chemical plant or a business with high risk of fire
  • Where travelling employees might need to give bad news to the company they were visiting and were required to leave quickly despite protesters!

There is even some anecdotal evidence that people reversing into their parking spaces is a sign of poor morale in a company.

Figure 1 - our company car park showing almost full compliance to the new rules

Other things I have started to question lately is that here in Ireland to work on a building site you must have a Safe Pass. The training is a one-day course and must be completed every couple of years at great expense to employers. Despite being a one day course I am assured it could be completed in little more than an hour. I haven’t done it myself so I can’t comment. Then there is the power tool training. Once again I believe it takes several hours and you must be re-certified every couple of years. There is a good justification for each of these but does the training need to take a day and does it need to be repeated so often.

However, there are other examples with very little justification. A good book is “In the Interests of Safety – The Absurd Rules that Blight Our Lives”. One good example included swimming pool rules from the UK which stated you must stay with your child while they were having a one on one swimming lesson. The person objected on the basis that they couldn’t swim and the child was in the pool with a qualified swimming instructor. The person then stated that they must stay in case the child needed to go to the toilet. The mother asked if she could go into the men’s toilet with the child and was told no. She asked if the child could come into the ladies toilets with her and was told that wasn’t allowed as the child was over seven. Swimming pool management then blamed the HSA in the UK as the source of the rules, but they denied ever having made such a dictate. Apologies if I have some of the details wrong but the gist of it is correct.

Another good book is by Ben Goldacre called “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That”. The example here that really caught my eye was one on the link between drinking alcohol and cancer. Once again I’m writing this from memory so my apologies if I don’t get it absolutely correct. The statisticians behind the report divided out the people surveyed into drinkers and non-drinkers and lo and behold the drinkers had a much higher level of cancer. Case closed! Mr Goldacre got access to the raw data and further divided the non-drinkers into smokers and non-smokers and the drinkers into smokers and non-smokers. It then turned out the real culprit behind the statistics was smoking. Non-smoking drinkers had a similar risk level to non-smoking non-drinking people. It just turned out that if you don’t drink it is more likely than not that you don’t smoke either. It seems there are very few smokers who don’t drink.

My last example is the driving test. A couple of years ago Ireland introduced a requirement that you must have 12 lessons from an approved instructor before applying for the test (this includes returned emigrants from the US who having been driving all their lives). However to the best of my knowledge the pass rate of the test hasn’t improved. One would imagine after having 12 lessons, at great time and expense, the driving test candidates would be much better drivers and the pass rates would soar. I see no obvious evidence of this with the pass rate still at just less than 50%.

In summary I think all safety measures should be based on facts. I admit engineering judgment can be used but safety cannot be based on the “we are doing it because everybody else is doing it”. We cannot afford to give safety a bad name by imposing rules that don’t actually increase safety. It’s a variation on the boy who cried wolf. Since May I have got a lot better at reversing into tight spaces so that is one benefit of the new policy.

I haven’t done a video in a while – this one is the famous “won’t somebody please think of the children” which can be used to justify almost anything – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDFo2Iok06Y

Some other interesting links:

A good book for further reading is “The System Safety Skeptic : Lessons Learned in Safety Management and Engineering”.