Book Review of “Risk: Why Smart People Have Dumb Accidents”

Risk: Why Smart People Have Dumb Accidents – And What We Can Learn From Them, by Steve Casner.

Risk Management is not what you would typically call an exciting activity. It is a slow and methodical process, based on data, science and educated assumptions.

This book is instead a light read. It does not cover medical device risk analysis, nor risk analysis at all as a structured process. It spaces instead through several industries, scenarios, including the most dangerous place you can step in: your own home.

It may not help you create a better risk management plan or give you an eye opening view on the device you’re currently working on, but it is full of small pieces on information that can provide interesting food for thoughts, especially from the user behavior standpoint.

The author of the book, Steve Casner, is a jet and helicopter pilot with degrees in computer science and “intelligent systems”. He also works as a research psychologist at NASA, where he studies safety as part of the “human factors” division1.

Based on years of research and understanding of human behavior learnt as a research psychologist, Risk is about why we behave in such contradictory ways. It may also help us keep our fingers attached in the kitchen, our children afloat at the pool and teenagers safe behind the wheel. Casner shows us how and when injuries happen and in Risk we learn what we should really be worrying about.

Some examples?


Apparently there is no such thing as “multitasking”. This is because multitasking is essentially switching your attention quickly between two things. And when you switch tasks, it always takes at least 10 seconds for your brain to readjust. So if you are driving a car, 10 sec after you have used your phone in your car while stopping at a red light, you are still being distracted. David Strayer has studied switching attention between driving and interacting with electronic devices and he claims that it takes drivers 20 seconds to fully recover from a behind-a-wheel distraction. In this time of attention hangover something quite dramatic may happen in traffic putting you and others in danger.

Using the wrong tools for the job or using the right tools in the wrong way

Home is the most dangerous place, when we look at the ER visits statistically. Although few get hurt while watching TV or taking a nap, the trouble starts when we are picking up tools to cook, make, decorate or fix something. Thousands of people each year end up in the back of an ambulance after creatively using a tool at home.

Remember the saying – to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is quite literally the case at home where we find creative ways of using the tools we have at hand for the variety of problems we face or things that need fixing.

How many of us have actually read an instruction manual for an implement at home or even seen an instruction manual for a screwdriver?

Even after realizing the amount of physical injuries we can get and the mistakes we have made ourselves at home or in the kitchen, e.g. while opening cans with kitchen knives, being more careful at home is not going to be an easy endeavor.

Patient’s noncompliance & cyberchondria

We want to be in full control about everything in our lives including our health. Even though we go to a doctor for checkups or when something is hurting or broken, how often have you decided to carry out an alternative recovery plan from the one your doctor suggested? You are not alone.

People are reportedly skipping prescribed medications and not taking their doctors advice. The real place where over 70% of people now go for their medical information is the internet. Sadly, most of these people quickly become cyberchondriac – where shopping for possible illnesses will get common symptoms linked to very serious and rare conditions.

Casner suggests we use the internet to supercharge our interactions with our doctors instead of diagnosing and treating ourselves.

Getting older – cognitive and physical decline & approaching limits

We all know how life expectancy has steadily increased over the past hundred years. But on the topic of age and safety we are still relatively uninformed and ill-informed. Or simply in denial once we reach a certain age.

It is not that we do not see our physical and cognitive decline as we age, it is knowing when we are approaching the limits of our own safety as well as the safety of people around us. How many of us know when it is the time to hand over our car keys and be done with driving? Casner discussed this with Meuser who admits that age is a weak predictor of functional capacity of whether or not it is safe to drive but who suggests simple tests to see if you should still be behind the wheel. For example, getting out of a chair and standing without using the help of your arms. Or climbing ten steps without getting winded. He adds that many symptoms manifest themselves when it becomes hard to learn something new like how to use a new TV remote. Although many elderly people who drive regularly are careful and safe, it is their cognitive and physical decline overtime that could make their reaction slower and their attention wander while driving potentially resulting in an accident.

Casner concludes that we need to pay a new, special kind of attention to looking out for ourselves and for others around us in order to make everyone’s life a little more safe from preventable injuries. Thinking ahead and planning for safety in advance takes patience and practice!

Be Safe Out There!

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