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Detail from August. Painting by Frank Baker Holmes, used with permission.

I was born feet first. First-born son of four boys. You don’t meet many people born feet first any more… it’s considered too dangerous. If they can’t get you to do a U-turn they do a C-section.

For Christmas I received Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, a really good book which I wholeheartedly recommend. I was not born standing up, however. Just feet first. Not enough muscle tone in my legs, so when I hit the floor I just crumpled.

I am sure you’ve noticed that we live in an intensely risk-averse culture. They don’t let us do ANYTHING dangerous any more. Ever notice that? Kids have to ride bikes with helmets on. Seatbelts are mandatory. Somehow we survived our childhoods without seatbelts or airbags. We played tackle football without pads almost every single day for years with only one broken bone that I know of in our neighborhood, and I wasn’t even there for that one. But today, it is amazing what they will not let kids do.

There are schools where sack races are outlawed because insurance premiums are too high. Kids can’t give each other piggy back rides on the playground. Oranges and watermelons have been eliminated in some schools because kids might choke on the seeds. (“Let them eat chocolate!” And of course they have pop machines.) And there are places where kids can’t make paper airplanes because some boys will throw them too hard.

Now when I was a kid, my brother and I knew how to have real paper airplane wars. We made paper airplanes with pins sticking out the nose of the plane. We each made a small paper plane air force, then played a variation of dodge ball in the family room. (Do not try this at home!) Yes, my mother did freak and we only did that once. I guess it never occurred to us that you could put an eye out. Instead of passing laws against paper airplanes, let teachers have the power to discipline the kids who get out of hand. That, unfortunately, is too complicated.

It’s hard to say which is the bigger culprit for this epidemic of safety and risk aversion, whether it’s lawyers or politicians. Two examples will suffice to show the problem. The first involves lawyers.

Sears made lawnmowers that were not easy to start. You had to yank a cord and sometimes, due to a wide variety of factors it took a little work to get that sucker started in the spring. Well, a guy dies of a heart attack and the lawyers make a case that Sears is at fault because the lawn mowers are too hard to start. They fix the problem by making a push button electric start so the mower is no longer hard to start. In fact, it is so easy to start that they end up with a couple instances of kids getting digits removed. The lawyers have a field day with this and get millions more from the company.

Sears has solved this problem, however. We just bought a new mower. It comes with a technician who starts it for you. Nice little guy. We keep him in the garage with the cat. We’ve also trained him to feed the geese and duck when he lets them out in the morning.

It’s easy to see how the lawyers have contributed to the problem. But politicians also have a long history of helping turn common sense into nonsense by passing laws to protect us from ourselves. The following will illustrate. And the pattern is one that politicians maintain even to this day.

In 1901 there were only 2 automobiles in Kansas. As chance would have it, they both happened to be in the same town at the same time and entered the same intersection from different angles. There was a deadly accident.

Kansas politicians had an emergency session and followed up with a law that you must stop your car after every mile and fire a flare into the air, to let other vehicles know you are coming.

You can picture the scene. Kansas, early 1902. Cop car is hiding behind bushes. Sees car go buy without stopping to light flares for a while. The vehicle is speeding (22 miles per hour) and being steered erratically. The cop pulls him over and walks up to the driver’s side. It’s a middle-aged couple and the wife starts pleading. “Officer, please, whatever we’re being stopped for, my husband’s so inebriated he didn’t know what he was doing.”

“That’s OK, m’am. Drunk driving is not against the law yet in these parts. Mister, are you aware that you drove over two miles without firing a flare? I’m going to have to write you a citation.”

When politicians put a law like that on the books, it makes you wonder just how long it stayed that way before they realized how silly it was. My guess is that many of these laws are still on the books. And now we know what happened to the American Dream.

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Ed Newman is a writer, artist, harmonica player, blogger and retired marketing professional. This blog post originally appeared at Ennyman’s Territory in 2008.

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