Infamy. When risk gets personal!
I nearly snorted cappuccino coffee all over the table. My wife just told me that I’d become the subject of an impassioned discussion on the local mothers’ Facebook group. INFAMY!
She’d just returned from taking our daughter to school where she’d been chatting with a friend. Apparently, the conversation went something like this:
“I was reading yesterday on the Facebook group, a woman complaining about a man flying down “Thousand Leaf Lane” on a bike, with a young boy on the back in a bike seat. She went on to explain how irresponsible she thought he was and said, ‘I bet his wife has got NO IDEA how fast he goes with her boy.’ That sounds a lot like Richard doesn’t it?” teased the friend. And that’s when the coffee nearly came out my nose. My wife winked at me – “I said that definitely sounds like Richard to me, and the answer to the poster’s question would be, ‘57.1 kilometres an hour last time I heard”.
OK, first of all, relief that I wasn’t being told off for my infamy. Secondly, a strange flush of weirdness came over me, about my data geekery with any sporting endeavour. My risk reporting to top management had been honest and remembered! But then it got me reflecting. I was infamous. An example of irresponsibility, a bad parent who takes risks with their kids! Which is not at all how I view myself. How could there be so much difference between my perception of a risk and that of a bystander, enough for it to provoke social media outrage?
Well, I don’t go in for social media but I do know how brains deal with risk, so let’s break this down. For some context, Thousand Leaf Lane is a hill that’s 600 metres long, with an average gradient of 6%, maximum, about 10%. It has reasonably good, wide tarmac, only some potholed surface near the top, and once you are past a small roundabout type junction about 150m down, there are no other turnings on to the road, with big houses all set a long way back from the wide verge. If a car reverses on to the road from a house, you get to see them in plenty of time, and there’s not much traffic or parked cars there.
I take my 18-month-old boy up to crèche every workday on a bike and pick him up and ride back down the same hill, every evening. We usually go 45-55 kilometres an hour downhill, although I only find this out later, on a webpage, rather than eyeing a bike computer screen on the descent.
The inherent risk is obviously that if I fall or have a collision, an injury could happen to the boy. The speeds are certainly enough to make sudden death possible – pretty much like every time we get in a car really, but we don’t usually think of our journeys in this way (familiarity with a risk can lead to “risk blindness” – it’s still there, but we don’t see it).
Obviously, I do things to reduce the level of risk exposure. We both wear good helmets, I normally have a fluorescent jacket on and have bright, flashing lights all the time. Our visibility is good. He’s strapped into a protective seat with a 5 point harness.
I know this road really well, that the riskiest point is parents arriving or departing to a crèche right at the bottom of the hill, in their cars. They don’t consistently look out for non-car road users, although I’ve obviously been noticed there by someone!
OK, visibility and protective gear are the obvious risk-mitigating actions. But what about risk-taking capacity? What the Facebook mum doesn’t know is that I used to race superbikes. I went to racing schools and learned how to make my brain work at speed and considerable danger. I’ve been at 290 km/h on two wheels and done 220 km/h in a corner with my elbow on the track surface. My brain’s been calibrated for speed because I’ve learned skills to decompress rapid movement.
It’s not just motorbikes though (which I no longer ride – too dangerous!). I still take part in cycling races and have competed in Alpine events in the mountains, like amateur versions of the Tour de France. I’ve travelled way faster on a bike downhill, so by comparison, Thousand Leaf Lane is pretty slow to me, but obviously not to the watching mother.
You could easily conclude from this that in specific circumstances, I can have a higher than usual risk appetite, certainly more than this critical mother. But the story isn’t that simple, because risk appetite, if not grounded in something real, can simply be the precursor to a risk event, an accident, a fatality. Risk appetite statements formed in isolation can be pretty unhelpful. I would say that I’ve got a specific skill that makes it much less likely that I’ll have an accident on that hill, but this is unseen and unknown to the person observing me. This skill isn’t just optimism bias or Dunings-Kruger syndrome over-estimation – I ride in big groups of cyclists and can compare how my downhill riding safety compares to theirs. Think of it as a risk benchmark.
Now, I’m definitely the Risk Owner in this situation, but there are times when the risk perception of other Risk Stakeholders requires good engagement to proceed. In this case, someone is looking at a risk in isolation and has a very different understanding of the risk profile than I do.
She also knows nothing of my risk shaping decisions, what we might call risk strategy. I actually cycle up a much steeper hill in the morning – about 17% gradient, that has a hairpin ‘S’ bend, a blind corner and several hidden junctions. There’s lots of sudden danger on that route and having to brake heavily and steer round sharp, downhill corners would likely overcome the grip available. Thousand Leaf Lane is my safer choice.
My Facebook critic also won’t know that after having done thousands of kilometres on my old mountain bike with the rubber rim brakes, I did a risk review last year. I felt that bike was worn out and that a new bike, with superior disc-brake technology, was a good risk reduction action to take.
So that leaves us with residual risk. None of the things I have said exempt me from having an accident. When it snowed recently, I did the trip to crèche in the car, avoiding the (crashing on a bicycle) risk altogether. But I continue to ride the bike with my boy on the back, because I’m teaching him a love of the outdoors, a respect for speed and skill, but also because in my risk portfolio there’s an associated, but more important risk – a global climate change problem. It may be a low-velocity risk but it has greater society-wide consequences that I want to take into account.
Going a bit fast at times, letting him be thrilled by two-wheeled speed, is part of me teaching him that this is much more fun than being sat in traffic and has far better physical, mental and environmental risk upsides, as long as we never forget to monitor for potholes and distracted drivers. I guess this dad who goes to the crèche is his beautiful Ferrari, probably sees things differently!
Feel free to repost this on social media; I can live with my infamy and it does stop me from being risk complacent. Does your organisation need any help with risk explanations? Go visit our website for further info. Stay safe!