Re: Mitigating Risk

From: <>
Date: Tue Sep 20 2005 - 10:05:04 EDT

Ruth and all,

I don't mean to deflect from the specific discussion of the rebuilding of
New Orleans, but I some time I would like to discuss the larger issue that
this topic is an example of: What is the appropriate level of safety
precaution vs. risk in any situation, and what is the role of government in
legislating particular safety precautions?

A good simple example is seatbelts in automobiles. We know that is safer to
wear them, and most (all?) states have a law requiring them to be worn, but
there are situations in which it is excessively inconvenient to do so. I'm
not suggesting that we not wear seatbelts or not put our infants in
appropriate car seats, but whose to say what the exact level of precaution
OUGHT to be? Is there a "morally" correct level of precaution? Automobiles
are very dangerous. The safest thing is not to ride in them at all, or if
we do ride in them to drive no faster than 40 mph, or to wear helmets. Last
year in Illinois they passed a law that requires a certified booster seat
for children until age 8. We had just gotten rid of the booster seat for my
daughter (age 7) because she seemed to fit better in our vehicle using just
the seatbelt. It wasn't just the inconvenience of having to buy another
booster seat that bothered me, but the whole thing adds what I consider
unreasonable inconvenience to transportation needs. For example, requiring
a booster seat for every kid under 8 makes it impossible to temporarily
seat four children in a back seat (double-buckle), as when picking up a
neighbor's child to go to church. Now two cars are needed where one was
sufficient before. My feeling on this issue is that automobiles were made
for people; people were not made for automobiles. (This is my version of
"The Sabbath is made for man; man was not made for the sabbath.") When the
level of inconvenience is so great, we are not being served by having
automobiles; it seems that we are serving automobiles.

The car example may seem trivial (at least as I've characterized it; I
don't mean to trivialize safety concerns), but it raises the whole issue of
"how safe is safe enough?" Even if we could afford the cost, is it worth
the ever increasing effort and inconvenience to ensure complete safety
(which we can never do anyway). It seems silly to think about wearing crash
helmets everytime you rode in your car, but we know that would be
considerably safer and would save many lives each year. How do we really
decide these things?

And then there's the issue of health care. How much "should" we do to
ensure healthy living? Unhealthy eating is has huge consequences (for the
individual and for society in general, including to the taxpayer), but does
that mean we should legislate what can be eaten? As Christians, do we have
a moral imperative to not eat any junk food? Only X amount of junk food? To
not smoke? To exercise regularly? I don't think that we do have such moral
imperatives (see my Sabbath quote above), but how exactly do we as
individuals and as a society determine the dividing line? How much medicine
is "should" we take to extend life and well-being vs. how much is too much?
Smoking used to be an acceptable "junk food", but now it is strongly
discouraged by society and law. What caused the change, and what other
things could eventually receive the same treatment?

Likewise, how much should spend and do to mitigate damage by hurricanes,
earthquakes, etc? It's all the same kind of question.

Again, I don't want to deflect from the specific discussion of New Orleans
that Ruth Miller began, so we can put my question on the back burner for
later, if we want. I regret that I've never made it to an ASA annual
meeting, so I apologize if this topic has been discussed there. Does anyone
know if this topic has been discussed before? It does seem to relate to the
science and technology/religion interface.


                      Keith Miller
                      <> To:
                      Sent by: cc:
                      asa-owner@lists.c Subject: [BULK] - engineering questions re. Katrina
                      09/19/05 09:29 PM

The message below is from Ruth:

> I'm not on the listserv, so please cc me if you reply to asa:
> We have watched the events in New Orleans, southern Mississippi and
> Alabama with increasing sorrow and frustration following Hurricane
> Katrina's arrival in late August. All the human suffering there seems
> particularly poignant to this engineer, at least, because Katrina
> should not have been unexpected. The questions raised by the storm's
> effects have been lying there for all of us to think about for
> decades, but the slow and, for many in the area, torturous response of
> those equipped to help strongly suggests that these questions had not
> ever considered seriously by those in authority. I invite ASA
> members, particularly those in engineering, to dialogue in this
> newsletter, on the listserv and in Perspectives, on questions such as
> these:
> Is it humanly possible to engineer safety for the population of a
> large city below sea level in a region subject to known periodic large
> strong storms? If yes, what sort of engineering solutions are there,
> and can they be implemented now in rebuilding New Orleans? Or should
> the solution be sought in permanent relocation of the population that
> lived on the Mississipi delta? Or is there some intermediate choice?
> What sort of engineering solutions would help with evacuation, rescue,
> and providing for basic human needs? Are there technologies known or
> conceivable to protect oil refineries, oil drilling platforms and
> other vital industries close to the coast? Can we engineer an
> electrical distribution system for coastal communities that is not
> vulnerable to both flood and wind? What about water, sewage and
> natural gas distribution?
> I'm sure I haven't thought of half the questions relevant to this
> situation, yet it seems to me if God has given me the calling of
> engineer, considering these kinds of questions should be high on my
> list of assigned stewardship duties. I welcome other members'
> thoughts and look forward to productive dialogue.
> Ruth
> --
> Ruth Douglas Miller
> Associate Professor
> Dept of Electrical and Computer Engineering
> 261 Rathbone Hall
> Kansas State University
> Manhattan, KS 66506-5204
> ph 785-532-4596
> fx 785-532-1188
> Support the KSU Solar Car Racing Team:
> Adopt-a-Cell!
Received on Tue Sep 20 10:08:48 2005

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