I graduated from college in 2007 and enjoyed 6 brief months of employment in the pre-recession era. It was a time when the research office flowed with free food. I especially remember one celebration (Flag Day?) when we had a tall, gorgeous cake covered in chocolate shavings and studded with fresh fruit. As it was being cut, a giant strawberry fell onto the conference room table. I instinctively reached for it. Only to have my supervisor gasp and swat my hand away. It was a compromised strawberry; I wasn’t to touch it.
I wash my hands 83 times a day, cough into my elbow, and always buckle up. Public Health needs us to do these things for our own good and the good of others, but it can’t solely rely on our caution and wisdom. Because I draw the line at fallen strawberries. You might draw the line at sunscreen. We’re all idiot snowflakes in our special ways, misjudging our risk in everyday situations. This is why while most traffic accidents occur during the winter months, when road conditions are poor, most traffic fatalities occur during the summer months, when conditions are clear*. We drive carefully when the roads are slick but carelessly when they are not, leading to deaths. Though 15% of all motor vehicle crashes in 2009 occurred in rain, snow, and sleet, they only accounted for 10% of traffic fatalities*.
(when my car was totaled** on I-495 one fine May morning and spun off of the road, I was able to recover, stop the car, and avoid all those thick trees thanks to this nice patch of grass)
Thus Public Health strives to make our environments safer so that even when we make the wrong call, we and those around us are protected. Rather than resigning road safety to the whims of individual drivers, trees can be cleared from the side of the road so that cars that spin out can be slowed down by grassy patches rather than slamming into trees. Airbags and collapsible steering columns prevent cars from becoming death boxes once crashes occur and minimize secondary injuries. These measures make crashes less lethal and lift the onus off of individuals but aren't always easy to come by-- they require conscientious planning and lobbying to win government and manufacturer support. These measures are necessary and reassuring when we aren't always reliable or rational. Because never mind the conference room table, I would have eaten that strawberry off of the carpeted hospital floor.
Policy Implication: Making products and the environment safer can be easier and more effective than changing human behavior.
*From the NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, via David Hemenway slides
**Not my fault.