Public Safety Indicator
by Trudy A. Karlson, Ph.D.
(Updated April 6, 2001)
The Calvert-Henderson Public Safety Indicator examines how effectively our society promotes safety – as measured by those instances when we have failed to prevent outcomes that result in death or injury. While some might expect an indicator on safety to be about crime, this Public Safety Indicator takes a different approach. The vast majority of injuries and deaths in the United States stems from events that do not fall into the common definition of crime. For this indicator, safety means more than the absence of crime, but also a safe physical environment, including safe products and safe roadways.
Determinants of safety are in both public and private spheres. Many people are accustomed to thinking about safety as something to be controlled through individual action alone. The model that is the basis for the Calvert-Henderson Public Safety Indicator identifies several important features of individual action within the private sphere that affect the probability of being injured. These include the propensity of engaging in risk-taking behaviors; the frequency, quantity and situations in which alcohol is used; the use of protective equipment; and the availability of training in skills necessary to avoid hazards.
The Public Safety Model moves beyond the private sphere to include public actions and environmental factors as important determinants of safety. Daily, we deal with the result of environmental factors and public actions that are beyond individual control yet have enormous impact on our safety and potential for harm. By public actions we mean laws, the design of products and our public spaces, and the financial incentives that drive manufacturers and consumers. As our society has become more complex, an individual may neither be aware of hazards nor have the means to avoid them. To reduce some of these hazards, we need to take collective action.
Firearms and motor vehicles account for more than half of all injury deaths in the United States. Preventing deaths in these two categories requires change in both the public and private sphere. For motor vehicles, actions in the public sphere include federal promulgation of safety standards for motor vehicle design and highway design, resulting in use of airbags and safer roadways for our vehicles. For firearms, actions in the public sphere have been neglected because of the extreme politicization of regulation. Potential life-saving actions include regulations of the design of firearms so that they cannot be discharged by unauthorized users, improvement of safety features on firearms to prevent unintentional discharge, and regulation of firearms as potentially hazardous consumer products.
Financial incentives drive safety as well. The decisions of corporations as they balance profit and costs have an enormous effect on our safety. These decisions include how much to spend on improved product design, advertising, and litigation as well as presenting corporate interests to decision makers and policymakers.
Governmental actions also determine our collective safety. They influence regulation of the design of public space or products, emergency response, disaster preparedness, and the extent and nature of advertising. Tax policies of the government include financial incentives to improve products or restrict their distribution.
Collectively, our ideas and our actions become our cultural values that influence individual, corporate and government behaviors affecting safety.
Supporting safe personal behaviors has always been an important part of improving the safety of our population. But it is also necessary to acknowledge what can be improved in the public sphere. Reducing deaths and injuries from cars and guns, the leading causes of death from injury, will require changes in the public sphere. To do so, we need to foster cultural values that support public action as well as personal behaviors as essential determinant of safety.