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Risky business

‘If anything happened, it would weigh on me for the rest of my life.”

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 both.

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 a risk.

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 happens.”

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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