On Risk, Common Sense And Compassion

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the risks of travel, how people perceive them and react to them.

I was on a red-eye flight back from LA to JFK last week. We had encountered some turbulence early on, and then things calmed down for a few hours. When the pilot announced more turbulence ahead and asked people to stay in their seats with their seat belts fastened, I heard dozens of people clicking their seat belts on.

Which is good except that they should have had them on anyway. Safety instructions always suggest you keep the belt on when seated, and there have been some reports lately of very serious injuries to passengers when jets hit clear-air turbulence with no warning. I’m not talking about a few bumps. I’m talking about a sudden sharp drop that smacks people into ceilings and sends drink carts and luggage flying.

So here’s a fairly simple thing that people can do, with very little inconvenience. Leave the seat belt on.

On the other hand, I’m not going to join the people I see on message boards always blaming people who get hurt in these circumstances. Sometimes you have to get up for the bathroom, and people may have seat belts off for other legitimate reasons. Besides, I wasn’t so careful about seat belts myself before I started blogging about travel and reading so much about turbulence.

The truth is, we all take risks.  Riding in a plane without your seat belt on seems like an unreasonable one to me because I don’t see a benefit to it. But I suspect some people find it much more comfortable to ride without one, as I have occasionally had to argue with people who didn’t want to wear one in my car. (Although, as Arthur Frommer recently suggested, buying a seat-belt extender is a great idea if the issue is simply your size.)

So what about the risk taken by seven tourists who were swept out to sea by a giant wave as they stood on the shore at Acadia National Park, apparently against the order of park rangers, as a hurricane passed offshore?  (As the Boston Globe reported.) Six people survived but a 7-year-old girl was killed.

Although the stormy Atlantic was surely an awe-inspiring sight, it’s clear in hindsight that the risk was unreasonable and it was a mistake to stand that close. Yet somehow people posting on message boards seemed to take only one of two extreme positions: stupid people deserve what they get or it’s simply a tragedy and there’s nobody to blame.

What’s missing is the middle, more nuanced ground where people are not always 100 percent victims or 100 percent villains but, complex as we all are, somewhere in between. How about a  compassionate acknowledgment that somebody made a big mistake and paid dearly for it?

And before we condemn people who make mistakes like that, we need to consider the risks we’ve taken ourselves. I’m generally not inclined to defy instructions from authorities, especially National Park Service rangers who know the terrain better than I do. But I’ve had the sense at one time or another that maybe the authorities were overprotecting me from a thrilling experience and I would certainly like to get a little closer, a temptation I can recognize even if I didn’t succumb to it.

And let’s remember that everyone who ignored the rangers’ instructions that day made the same mistake. It was random chance that only one little girl and her surviving family paid for it.

And I figure that if you can’t imagine even the slightest possibility that you might make a fatal mistake yourself one day, you’re probably much more likely to do it.

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