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Weighing Risk 

by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ast week's issue of the New Yorker magazine featured on its cover a rear view photograph of a naked man making his way through an airport metal detector. Everything he carried -- and wore -- was piled in his plastic tray. Going naked through the metal detector; the ultimate in "risk free."





America today, thanks in large part to our litigious way of life, does "risk free" 24/7, anytime, anywhere, and I don't refer just to antiterrorism. Ever since the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, American consumers have been forced to open packages and containers with Swiss Army knives.





I distinguish between "risk mitigation" and "risk free." Risk mitigation makes sense. You balance the probabilities of loss with the prospect of costs and you make a decision. Maybe the inconvenience of struggling to open a Tylenol container is more than offset by the benefit of avoiding death by cyanide poisoning. On the other hand, we don't expect the airlines to put passengers into parachutes because it is hypothetically possible that the plane will lose an engine.





Some gun advocates urge that citizens become vigilantes. The promised benefit, I've always thought, is more than offset by the likelihood our Dirty Harrys will shoot a bystander when drawing down on bad guys -- real or imagined. I'll take my chances that the police will arrive in time. That, and I'll stay out of dark alleys.





"Risk mitigation" isn't evidence of cultural neurosis, but the quest for the Holy Grail of "risk free" most certainly is. And that's the point of the New Yorker cover image. "Risk mitigation" is the reasonable response to cost-benefit analysis. "Risk free" is a neurotic response to a hypothetical threat.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hich brings me to two recent Washington state edicts, neither of which pass the cost-benefit test: Both, as administered by our bureaucrats, push us toward "risk free" when we should be thinking more about "risk mitigation." Costs too high. Benefits too low.





Let's begin with the state health department's requirement that public swimming pools have 4-foot-high fencing with smaller openings than are presently surrounding Spokane's public pools. The benefit: Younger kids will have more difficulty scaling the fence; ergo, fewer will drown. The costs: Time, money, loss of aesthetics. The reality: There's no recent history of kids climbing fences, jumping into pools and drowning. Conclusion: Spokane should be permitted a variance to the regulation. Fact: New fencing is on the way through the upcoming bond-funded pool renovation project.





So, why now, asks the city. The state says the county can decide whether the fencing is needed now. The county says that the city has had four years to comply. I asked the obvious question to a woman at the county: Is there an emergent need? The lady seemed taken aback. Was I not concerned about child safety (the classic "risk free" response)? So, sans waiver, the city is putting up ugly plywood when it can't locate alternative fencing. "Risk mitigation" has been arbitrarily transformed by bureaucratic inertia into "risk free," for no apparent good reason.


Furthermore, the plywood doesn't stop the kids who need stopping. I asked the city aquatics director, Carl Strong, if Spokane has a history of kids drowning after they had climbed over a fence.





"Kids often break into empty pools," he told me. (Check out the graffiti up at the Comstock Pool.) "But they most often get in not by climbing over the fence; rather they cut through the chains that lock up the gates." But drowning? "I did hear," said Mr. Strong, "that back in the '30s a kid climbed over the fence and drowned." Almost 80 years ago. Now that's a risk that we need to get right on!





At the same time that the pool issue came down from the "risk-free" set, the state struck again. The Legislature, no doubt in response to the 2003 nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, where almost 100 people died, passed what amounts to an unfunded mandate, retroactive no less, which forces "nightclubs" to put in sprinkler systems or forfeit the privilege of doing business. The measure passed unanimously. (And where were the small-business Republicans on this one?)





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & ight I suggest a cost-benefit analysis that should have been conducted but wasn't? First off, the band that caused the tragedy in Rhode Island had been allowed to touch off fireworks -- indoors! Which brings us to the "well, duh" moment of the column. Gee, how about a simple law prohibiting fireworks indoors? Might that do the trick?





Moreover, a well-done cost-benefit study would have taken into account the mandate's impact on business -- particularly important inasmuch as we are dealing here with small businesses, many working at the margin. Given that the mandate is both retroactive and unfunded, wouldn't you want to know how many small establishments might have to shut their doors?





Some 40 venues in the Spokane area have been identified as meeting the profile requiring sprinkler systems. How many are "for profit?" How many nonprofit? Which ones serve alcohol? Which ones don't? Which ones may have to close their doors? Is this a public good? These are distinctions that beg to be drawn.





The Legislature, en route to transforming "risk mitigation" into "risk free," never thought to ask any of these questions. As a result, members of both parties headed, like lemmings, right into the morass of "risk free."





"Risk free" is about taking off your clothes at the airport security metal detector. "Risk mitigation" is about being reasonable.
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