No Such Thing as Safe
Join Chris and Fred as they discuss what it means for something to be ‘safe.’ And how we demonstrate something to be ‘safe.’ What is safe?
- There is no such thing as ‘safe.’ What? In reality, there is no all-powerful, over-arching idea of what ‘safe’ is. There was a time when society believed that cars without seatbelts were safe. We don’t believe that anymore. It is also much safer to fly in a plane rather than drive a car to the airport. If airplanes caused as many deaths per mile as cars did … society would be outraged!
- ‘Safe’ has been, and always will be, a subjective idea. So being safe can mean that we are diligent in addressing issues as they arise. Safe can be complying with known approaches to keeping a certain technology ‘safe.’
- We sometimes see safety as part of a market-driven approach to engineering. If something is unsafe, then purchasers are less likely to purchase that product, and so there becomes a commercial motivation to produce ‘safe’ products.
- We sometimes don’t. This is when we have regulatory bodies who outline what ‘safe’ means for a particular product or system. The US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) are an example of this. If a vehicle complies with the FMVSS, then auto manufacturers can’t be sued for their vehicles being ‘unsafe.’
- But this often doesn’t work #1. Look at autonomous vehicles. We are used to the automobile industry being regulated. But the regulators have struggled to come up with any meaningful definition of safety for autonomous vehicles. There are (usually) simple statements about autonomous vehicles ‘doing no harm.’ But how do you prove this? What does a ‘safe’ autonomous vehicle look like? No one has defined this yet.
- But this often doesn’t work #2. Takata airbags were largely ‘built to standards’ but there were some key design issues that mean that their gas canisters exploded without warning. So regulation doesn’t cover this … nor is Takata not liable for the harm their airbags cause.
- Remember … there is no such thing as ‘safe.’ The safest thing for you to do each day is not leave your house. But this is not ‘living.’ So how safe is ‘safe enough?’
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