Safety – should we trust our own judgement?

warning sign

Every journey we take, whether we’re walking up the road to post a letter or flying to the other side of the world, poses a certain level of risk. Some of the risks are easy to identify (getting run over, being involved in a plane crash or a terrorist incident), while others are impossible to predict, but exist nonetheless. Yet on any trip we take, we make judgements of the risks involved, whether or not we stop to think about the thought process beyond them. All too often, these judgements are based on very shaky reasoning.

On our recent trip to Indonesia I rented out a motor scooter, despite having never ridden one before. I would probably never have thought of doing this in the UK, but here it was the only option to get around in this one particular place. I was aware of the risks, but once I’d decided to do it, that was that. Even passing the wreckage of a fatal bike accident hours before didn’t deter me from renting a bike; I explained it away in my mind as something that could have happened anywhere, and even to a pedestrian. Only a couple of weeks earlier I wouldn’t have entertained the idea of getting on a motor scooter; and yet when faced with the option of being stuck in a small town for a couple of days and missing the main nearby attractions, my perception of the risk appeared to change.

We were in Indonesia at the time of the tragic Air Asia crash. On several occasions in the previous weeks, we’d encountered fellow tourists talking about their travel plans in SE Asia and how they’d decided on their itinerary according to the Air Asia timetable. They were determined to avoid any of the Indonesian carriers, many of who are known for a less-than-stellar safety record. Immediately after the crash we heard travellers expressing their anxiety at getting on an Air Asia flight, seeking instead any available alternative. Had the risk equation changed so suddenly with that single incident? Or are our decisions based far more on a gut reaction and influenced by the news headlines rather than hard facts?

We’ve been guilty several times of this same reaction, changing a trip because of negative news, even when the UK government travel advice has suggested there was no reason not to go to our planned destination. Most notably we skipped a trip to Istanbul in 2009 at a time when a series of protests were taking place in the city, choosing instead to go to Syria.

And these risk calculations go to a far deeper, more mundane level than the big ‘to go or not go’ question. Are we as diligent in wearing seat belts in the back of a taxi when nobody else appears to be wearing them – even when the standard of driving would suggest it’s more necessary than ever? What about walking on hiking trails or exploring old ruins which, in the UK, would have safety railings and multiple warnings – how and why do we change our perception of what is safe, according to the local variances in safety practices?

Perhaps it’s just as well we do make highly individual, often irrational, and generally unpredictable decisions based on what we perceive as the risk involved in a particular activity or journey. A universal approach might mean a pattern of boom and bust for many businesses associated with tourism.  We make our own risk judgements, and even when we stop to think about them, in many cases we’re not making decisions based on anything more sound than the current direction of the wind.


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Freelance travel writer

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