How Safe is Safe Enough?

How Safe is Safe Enough?

Technological Risks, Real and Perceived

E. E. Lewis


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An authoritative analysis of how public perception of risk affects regulatory standards more often than statistical data.

Every time an airplane crashes, a gas line explodes, a bridge collapses, or a contaminant escapes the public questions whether the benefits that technology brings are worth its risks. Written in laymen’s language, How Safe Is Safe Enough? explores the realities of the risks that technology presents and the public’s perceptions of them. E. E. Lewis examines how these perceptions are reconciled with economic interests and risk assessors’ analyses in messy and often contentious political processes that determine acceptable levels of safety—levels that often depend more on the perceived nature of the risks than on the number of deaths or injuries that they cause.

Outlining why things fail and why design necessitates tradeoffs between performance, cost, and safety, Lewis details methods for identifying and eliminating design flaws and illustrates the consequences when they fail. Examining faulty machine interfaces that cause disastrous human errors, Lewis highlights how cost cutting and maintenance neglect have led to catastrophic consequences.

How Safe Is Safe Enough? explores how society determines adequate levels of safety and enforces safety regulations, addressing controversies surrounding cost-benefit analysis. Lewis argues that large regulatory effects stem from the public’s wide-ranging perceptions of three classes of accidents: the many everyday accidents causing one or two deaths at a time, rare disasters causing large loss of life, and toxic releases leading to uncertain future health risks. Using the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Lewis discusses the dichotomies faced in reconciling professional risk assessors’ statistical approaches with society’s fears and perceptions.

For better or worse, technology permeates our lives, despite how little we often understand about how it works or what the chances are it will dangerously fail. Such interest and concerns are at the heart of this authoritative, provocative analysis.