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the price of safety
are we headed toward bowling bumpers and airbags everywhere?
by jeffrey d. walker

This fall, I'm thinking about heading to an amusement park. Just because I'm in my mid-thirties doesn't mean I stopped liking roller coasters. But as I started researching the park that I'd most like to visit, I ran across ads for theme parks I'll never get to go to. The one that stands out was Vernon, New Jersey's Action Park.

It's hard to get a full picture of the fantasticness of this place today, because many of its features are gone and buried. Action Park closed in 1996, mainly due to law suits after patrons were injured, earning Action Park nicknames like: "Accident Park", "Class Action Park", "Danger Park" and "Death Park". There are a couple of commercials floating around online, but not much.

Of course, there are sound reasons Action Park is closed. People don't want to lose a limb or a family member on Space Mountain . Amusement parks are meant to be amusing, after all. Its right in the name. They're not called maiming parks, or disfiguring parks, or death parks. Though if they were called that, I'm pretty sure that the metal and Goth crowd would love it.

But of course that won't happen. From a business standpoint, theme parks can't just let people get crushed and mashed all day long. Lawyers, insurance companies, and other lines of people go out of their way to minimize risky stuff.

This same trend filters down through several layers of amusement. Football players used to dress like this. Today, like this. Race car drivers used to drive with little more protection than goggles, whereas today they have helmets, fire-proof suits, all kinds of stuff.

The playing surface of my elementary school had some dirt and grass, cement, and usually broken glass. More and more often, playground surfaces are rubberized, or Astroturf, with safety being cited as part of the reason for the switch. More and more often, activities like dodge ball are taken out of school. Each of these measures probably saves lives and limbs, and that's not wrong, I guess.

But I can't help but feel that, with each hazard that is marginalized, were losing something important in the cycle of life. I can best describe it by use of legal jargon: Assumption of risk, which is where a defendant can escape liability if he can prove that the injured party voluntarily and knowingly assumed the risks at issue inherent to the dangerous activity in which he was participating at the time of his injury. This is a sliding scale by age. A three year-old generally cannot assume a risk for lack of understanding, where a full grown adult usually can. For purposes of lawsuit, if both a three year-old and an adult were injured trying to tackle you in a football game, your defense of assumed risk will probably work against the adult because he knew he might get hurt playing football. The kid, on the other hand, will probably not be held to such a standard; but as it ages, and presumably begins to appreciate the dangers of the world, their responsibility (legally speaking) will be assumed.

But even outside the context of a lawsuit, I have this belief that there is some sort of life lesson that one learns when they get hurt. If you burn your hand on the stove, you learn not to do that again. If you fall off the monkey bars, you remember to hold on better next time.

So, I have to wonder, what happens if most of those dangers stop existing? I'm not suggesting that we'll all live in a world on day where there's no danger of physical accident, such as the chair-bound humans in Wall-E. But as dangers are diminished, presumably these lessons are learned more slowly (if at all). Does this mean that we will eventually end up stunting our collective mental growth? Are we slowly putting up the equivalent of bowling alley bumpers around our lives?

I can't foresee the future, and I don't have the urge to undertake any attempted social research to try to get an answer to these hypothetical questions, despite my curiosity. And even if it were true that we're stunting our psychological development in this manner, I'm not suggesting that we throw all caution to the wind and start building super dangerous amusement parks again. But I do wonder what the future will look like. Will we one day be dressing our kids up in something like those inflatable sumo-wrestling suits when they go out to play in their bubble-wrapped playground one day? Will there be huge bowling alley bumpers adjacent to the sidewalks in the future? Personal airbags built into our clothing?

If this is the case, hopefully it's far off enough into the future that I'll miss it.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


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topic: general
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by jeffrey d. walker
topic: general
published: 11.17.08


lucy lediaev
7.21.09 @ 7:26p

I wrote an article Safety First: Sacrificing Fitness for Safety on a similar subject. I had just read an article about schools and playgrounds changing their grounds and equipment to avoid risk of injury. I agree heartily with your assessment here. Somehow my sibs and I did all sorts of things as kids that would now be ruled too dangerous. I rode my bike on a busy boulevard during 5th and 6th grade on my way to school; I walked, balanced on the rails of the Southern Pacific tracks, and lingered on the railroad bridge on my way to junior high. We made sleds of flattened cardboard boxes and slid down steep hills on the slippery, dried out wild oats--avoiding broken glass and old tin cans in our pathes. And, horror of horrors--we played house in the splintery old chicken coop in the back yard. Can anyone say TETANUS and SALMONELLA? We survived and are probably the healthier for spending the warm months barefooted, playing outdoors around all sorts of potential hazards.

jeffrey walker
7.21.09 @ 7:32p

I had a professor in environmental science who told me how she played behind the trucks that sprayed DDT.

russ carr
7.22.09 @ 1:01p

Kids gotta be free to demand Bag o' Glass for Christmas. And to dress up as Johnny Human Torch at Halloween.

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