anything happened, it would weigh on me for the rest of my
Is the speaker talking about speeding? Applying pesticides
to his lawn? Keeping a gun in the closet? Forgetting to vote?
No, that’s the principal of Maple Avenue Middle School in
Saratoga Springs, quoted in The Saratogian, explaining
why kids are not allowed to bike or walk to his school—no
matter how close they live, no matter if a parent accompanies
them, no matter if they take a bike path that dumps them directly
onto school property.
When one student and his mother rode to school on National
Ride to Work Day this May, his bicycle was confiscated and
locked in a boiler room until she could come back with a car
to pick it up.
I could easily spend a whole page fuming about the stupidity
of this rule—how the cars are what make traffic dangerous
and so are the ones that are constrained, and how the whole
“stranger danger” thing is overblown (not non-existent, overblown),
and in any case, how getting people out of cars and onto bikes
and their feet in greater numbers is a (partial) answer to
But I keep coming back to that quote of the principal’s and
thinking about how it’s a symptom of something larger, not
a freakish anomaly. Everywhere I turn, I seem to find choices
that are bad in the long term being made—and even worse, being
foisted upon others who would have chosen differently—in the
name of avoiding ever feeling responsible for having taken
In this mindset, the ultimate goal is not actually the best
outcome possible or even the most reduced risk—it is the absolute
avoidance of those risks that can’t be passed off on someone
else or accepted by society at large as “something that just
This mindset is at work every time anything fun and active
and educational is canceled for “liability” reasons: swimming
outside the ropes in a lake; playing on a school field after
school is closed; doing real chemistry experiments. It’s the
reason we can drive on the highway with an infant in a car
seat (car accidents just happen, you know, like tornadoes),
but not let a 10-year-old bike to school. That “if anything
happened . . .” phrase comes up in arguments against home
birth and cosleeping all the time, with nary an indication
that the possible negative effects of the opposite choices
might weigh on anyone equally.
Does that principal stay up at night worrying about the children
who are getting asthma from unnecessary exposure to school-bus
exhaust? The ones getting what used to be called “adult-onset”
diabetes as children because they sit on their rumps all day?
The ones with a stunted sense of independence because they’ve
never ever gone anywhere under their own steam? The ones injured
by cars on their way to school (one of the most common ways
for children to get hurt is dashing across the street after
a parent drops them off at school)?
He should, because he has a policy that increases those dangers.
Would he be directly and solely responsible for each individual
instance of those problems? Of course not. Just like he wouldn’t
be directly responsible for the purported accidents or abductions
he fears for students on bikes or feet.
Thing is, his job is not to make risk go away. It’s to make
policies that generate the best results for his students over
a wide range of scenarios, and leave things that are not his
business to parents or the students themselves to weigh. (Though
I cringe at the idea, he could even get them to sign a waiver
if his faint heart can’t take it.)
I understand it. Risk is scary, and living with yourself when
a risk went wrong is very hard. Many people make different
choices about what risks are acceptable to them and which
ones aren’t, which is fine—if they’re not making those choices
for other people.
But trying to insulate ourselves and our children from all
responsibility for judicious risk-taking makes our world more
dangerous, less healthy, and significantly less free.