For prevention of forest fires, there was Smokey the Bear. In the water, there was Walter Safety. In the city, there was Elmer the Safety Elephant. Children of my generation certainly had no shortage of safety mascots. Were we any safer than previous generations - or subsequent ones? Were we happier? Or at least, more happy-go-lucky?

In a recent entry, I paid tribute to Patty Duke and mentioned an article I had saved in an old scrapbook. On the back of that scrapbook, a smiling Elmer reminded children of his six safety rules. Those rules have been reworded and re-illustrated since then and a seventh rule regarding seat belts and safety restraints in cars has been added, but apparently the Elmer program is still going strong as Elmer approaches his 70th birthday - right down to the little flags that may be flown by schools where there have been no traffic accidents involving their kids over the past 30 days.

That was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I can't remember seeing an Elmer flag on a school flagpole in many years - maybe even decades. Does that reflect the fact that there are a lot more traffic accidents nowadays, or does it simply mean that there are fewer schools participating in the Elmer program? Or maybe they're participating in other ways, perhaps with computer games rather than flags and cuddly plush toys? You know, even back in the 80s or 90s. folklorist Phil Tilney expressed scepticism on CBC radio about the fact that the Elmer flag would come down for a month if a student was injured, dismissing it as some sort of an urban legend. But it definitely happened at the elementary schools I attended!

Secondly, given all the safety measures these days that are actually required by law, it would seem intuitively logical to me that there should be MORE safety mascots out there, not fewer, and they should be higher-profile than they were in my generation. These days it often seems to me that it's Safety First, Safety Last, and Safety Everywhere In-between. Are we still able and allowed to have fun? To lead an active lifestyle without constantly looking over our shoulder for the policeman to leap out of the bushes and arrest poor old Paul Soles? Is there still room for good judgement and the human factor, for assessing our own (and our children's) personality, level of skill, maturity, risks of the activity itself, etc., and then governing ourselves accordingly?

I definitely think things like bike helmets are a good thing, regardless of what the law says. But I also think there's a huge potential danger in putting too much of our faith and trust in laws and automated safety features and the like. Remember that old-fashioned saying "God helps those who help themselves?" As an atheist or agnostic who moves largely in secular circles, I might replace the word "God" with something like "Nature", but I agree with the basic idea. We need to harness our inner resources and human qualities rather than letting our judgement and problem-solving skills atrophy because we have a false sense of security about mindless and often quirky safety features. The laws and safety features are the tools we use to achieve certain objectives, so we shouldn't be at the mercy of them.

We also need to encourage our children to gradually hone their problem-solving skills, their judgement, and their capacity to take sensible risks if warranted (the old "nothing ventured, nothing gained" adage). This does, of course, take time. And yet, our social, legal and safety infrastructure does not necessarily take this into account. Independence is a process, not a birthday or a bar/bat mitzvah or a driver's licence or any isolated event, as any experienced parent will tell you.

I was struck by an article in Tuesday's paper with the alarmist headline "Study Finds 30% of Children Neglected". But after reading through the article itself, I decided the reality was rather different. Yes, quite a number of parents "sometimes" leave children aged 10 to 15 home alone. Well, by the age of 13 or 14, lots of kids are themselves babysitting. Does that mean that if you let your kids babysit before they're 16, you're automatically neglecting them? There's no mention of how LONG they were left alone, whether it was day or evening, what sort of neighbourhood they were in, how mature the kids were, and so on.

I've also been struck while watching various TV shows like Coronation Street by all the relatively old children - say, 10 or 11 or 12 - who have to be taken to school and brought home afterwards. That would have been unheard of when I was a kid, unless there were special circumstances. Even when I was in kindergarten, I was walking there and back again by myself after the first few days or weeks. And I'll readily admit that I wasn't the most mature 5-year-old out there!

I think we do our children a grave disservice if we insist until they're 13 or 16 or 18 that they mustn't do ANYTHING without adult supervision and then once they've reached that magic age, we suddenly give them all the freedom they think they've always wanted but now don't know what to do with! Come to think of it, maybe that's why half the 13-year-old girls on Coronation Street seem to get pregnant!

Is the world just more dangerous than it was a generation or two ago? Have we as a society become more paranoid? Are we losing or devaluing our humanity?

I don't know. But let's not forget that to a great extent, our job as parents is to ultimately put ourselves OUT of the job.
On June 5, 2012, I wrote about having been in the wrong place at the right time, also in regard to a trip to Toronto. I relived that sensation last week - although this time the tragedy occurred in Ottawa.

Last Monday, I took the 8:30 train to Toronto for my Ex Libris board meeting, which was on Tuesday. I stayed an extra day and night, returning to Ottawa on Thursday on the 4:20 PM train - which I selected deliberately as it normally is a non-stop trip from Toronto Union station to Fallowfield (ending at the main Ottawa station) and takes slightly less than four hours for the complete trip. This time, however, we were only able to go as far as Brockville by train and then had to board one of three buses - to Ottawa's main station, the Barrhaven (Fallowfield) station, or Dorval/Montreal. Which meant arriving over an hour late. If I'd waited till Friday to go home, I could have gone the entire way by train. And yet, if I'd gone two days later, it would have been so much worse.

News of the catastrophic bus-train collision that killed six people (and a number of others may still be hanging on by a thread) was all over the news on Wednesday - not just in Ottawa but also in Toronto, Niagara and no doubt elsewhere. Even the much-maligned Toronto mayor was making all the right noises, extending sympathies and offers of assistance (whatever that meant) to Ottawa and Ottawans. Of course, there were probably quite a lot of Torontonians on that train too! As a train passenger, I probably would not have been injured even if I'd taken the Wednesday train - physically, at least. The psychological and emotional turmoil, however, would have taken considerably longer to overcome! I do know people living in Barrhaven; I think I may even have met at least one of the people who died, though I certainly didn't know any of them well.

So where should we go from here? I'm not sure if we'll ever know quite what caused the crash. But additional safety measures could certainly be implemented. I think an overpass or underpass is definitely in order, although that obviously can't be built overnight. Meanwhile, I'm wondering what numbskull decided that trains mustn't blow their whistles at certain times of day - funny that the City can get exemptions to allow construction noise at Lansdowne Park at 3AM but trains aren't even allowed to blow their whistles in the suburbs of Ottawa during daylight hours!

Should the number 76 be retired? Although I have the utmost sympathy for the people involved in the disaster, I vote no on that one. The gesture would be at best symbolic. It's confusing enough when buses change their numbers without substantially changing their routes (as, for example, when the 71 became the 86 or the number 53 was used for a new route that was nothing like the old 53 route). And it's not like hockey or other sports players where a specific number corresponds to a particular person: there must have been dozens of people behind the wheel of the 76 over the years it's been in existence.

I still think that on balance, train travel is very safe. But that doesn't mean we should get too complacent, as this episode makes clear.

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