The elephant in the room (humans)

“Come on everyone, we’re off the to the beach!”

“Yay! Going to the beach is brilliant! Let me get me get my…..woooahh, hang on. Going to the beach can be dangerous. Because there are”…..[insert risk here]

What did you say? Was it ‘sharks’? Course it was. The beach is dangerous because of sharks.


There ain’t no sharks at the beach. If you live in the UK, there has never, ever, ever been a person eaten by a shark. Ever. Apparently back in 1937 a boat was capsized and three people died, but really, you’re more likely to get killed by picking your nose.

So why do we think about sharks when we consider beach risk? Well mostly, because humans are utterly useless at assessing risk. For the most part we have absolutely no idea how to look at risk and determine how bad it is and what the best way of mitigating it is. (We’re very big fans of risk transference but more on that later)  Because we’re all a bit thick, to be quite frank.

Well, that’s a little unfair. There’s some externals. Mostly made up of other humans. But generally, we’re thick.

Humans are also useless at assessing risk  in the other direction. Here’s a risk I see a lot (I work in Information Security).


Phishing emails. Insanely common, mainly because we’re terrible at assessing risks. They work so well because humans just love clicking on those links. They don’t stop to think, they don’t consider the long education programs they’ve been subjected to. They don’t recall the phishing tests they see regularly from their *brilliant* information security team. Nope, they just click. I can absolutely guarantee I will get at least a 5% success rate with any phishing campaign I fire at an organisation. Absolutely guarantee it. And I only need one click for the campaign to be a success.

It works because links look so common, so anti-climatic, so inert that some people will never believe they are dangerous when the reality is they can be incredibly, devastatingly dangerous. (Phishing emails now the most common initial attack vector for all successful breaches, by far). That’s a whole different discussion but these attacks can and do cost companies hundreds of millions of pounds and it all begins with a single, thoughtless click.

Where else are humans rubbish at assessing risk? Out on the roads? Yes, I expect we are.

Ask your average person in the street about road safety and they’ll almost certainly mention cyclists, either as victims or perps of road violence. As I said, thick. Cyclists are hugely benign as a source of road violence, comparatively but they’re a different group for most people so othering takes over. As for victims of road violence, cyclists certainly take a bit of a beating (sic) compared to say, car occupants, but it’s still an incredibly safe form of transport and no more dangerous than walking about the place.

What’s massively more dangerous than cycling, is *not* cycling. You won’t find any car company telling you that.


There are a whole stream of epidemics hitting this country. Pollution, obesity, heart disease, all killers, but you can guarantee these average people in the street won’t consider these risks when carrying out their own assessments because they’re not obvious.

The dangers of cycling aren’t obvious either, are they?


Oh…. You see, people *think* cycling is dangerous because they’re told it’s dangerous by a whole assortment of poorly informed, poorly intentioned organisations some of whom have plenty of skin in the game of making it look so (car companies are top of the list). The media quite happily buy into this by running near constant campaigns lambasting cyclists whilst ignoring their ‘most read’ sub-headings covering yet another killer driver.

Because nothing generates hits like ‘Cyclist’ on their front page. It’s like shouting ‘Shark’ at the beach.

There are no sharks at the beach.

Risk assessment demands a good level of common sense, don’t let the nonsense people feed you take yours away.


4 thoughts on “The elephant in the room (humans)

  1. Even in Australia where the animals are “famously dangerous” the chance of a person being killed by a shark is roughly the same as being killed by lighting, or being killed by a snake, or being killed by a storm.

    The complication is its possible to largely avoid sharks and snakes by not being in the water or outside, so people can eliminate the risk. For transport its a little harder as there are many choices available and they all have some risk:
    So its understandable from a self preservation point of view that people will not want to ride a bicycle, but the scary thing is walking is even less safe again!

  2. The article makes a very valid point. Yes, we people are rubbish at evaluating risk and we assume people riding cycles cause far, far more danger than they really do. The risk of being killed and injured while cycling are also less than many people tend to assume.

    However, cycling could and should be made much safer than it is.

    Partly this is an issue of subjective safety: even if we could, why should we have to educate people into accepting large vehicles whizzing past at close proximity?

    The bigger issue is that the raw data on KSI rates make cycling look far safer than it really is. Basically people are managing unacceptable levels of risk by simply not cycling in risky situations. Children, the elderly, those with disabilities are largely absent altogether or are creeping around on the pavement. Even committed cyclists mostly avoid fast roundabouts, dual carriageways, fast roads in the dark and ice and so on. The KSI figures make the roads appear less dangerous than they are.

    In the town where I live, around 1 in 5 of all KSIs are to someone cycling. This is more than the number of KSIs for pedestrians, yet there are many more pedestrians present on the streets and more of them are from the vulnerable groups. So, cycling here is not safer than walking. Stupid as we people undoubtedly are, we aren’t entirely stupid.

  3. These are good points and I agree. The resolution is safer infrastructure which would de-stabilise the media campaigns and encourage those people who want to cycle but are afraid to to get on their bikes.

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