The New American Rage for Prudence

RESTAURANT patrons in New Jersey who order their eggs "over easy" or "sunny side up" are getting a rude shock this month: No more runny eggs, by order of the state Health Department. Health officials have also banned Caesar salad and eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce, because they are made with raw eggs. Restaurants can be fined $25 to $100 if they defy the new ruling, designed to prevent salmonella.

If runny eggs are against the law this year - and many residents of New Jersey believe the danger they pose has been exaggerated - will all eggs be declared illegal next year? Only the Egg Police know for sure. Meanwhile, restaurateurs worry that indignant diners will walk out.

New Jersey's ruling serves as the latest example of well-meaning but sometimes overzealous public efforts to protect people from every possible danger, real or imagined. We live in an age of risk, and at times the whole world seems to have a warning label attached to it.

So wide-ranging are the nutritional laws laid down by the Food Patrol, for instance, that a conscientious shopper could spend all day in the supermarket, checking labels for salt, cholesterol, and fat. Even the most careful eater can find it hard to keep up with changing theories of "good" and "bad" food. After years of warning about the dangers of sodium, nutritionists now suggest that certain health problems stem from too little calcium rather than too much salt. Please pass the pretzels - and milk.

Then there are the perils lurking beyond the kitchen. Annual lists of the 10 most dangerous toys make the playroom seem like a minefield. And parents who once thought baby-proofing a house meant putting away knickknacks find themselves being urged to read entire books on how to protect infants from every sharp-edged hazard in sight.

For children and adults alike, venturing outdoors in the age of the greenhouse effect invites another warning: Don't forget your sunblock. But here, too, revisionists argue that sunscreens can cause the very problems they are supposed to prevent.

Other contradictions abound. Auto manufacturers continue to make faster and faster cars, then sell them by emphasizing such safety-first specialties as anti-lock braking systems and airbags.

Even on quiet suburban streets, children no longer pedal their bikes without putting on helmets first. Will they ever know the pleasure of feeling the wind through their hair as they ride? And if legislators in New Jersey prevail, young skiers will be required to wear helmets, despite claims by opponents that heavy helmets can cause more injuries than they prevent.

For adults, even normal relationships carry unforeseen perils. A private investigator in Illinois, Jeffrey Hartman, has produced a videotape called "Do You Know Who You're Dating?" According to a press release, "The risks are many - date rape, promiscuity, misrepresentation, even financial loss." For $19.95, viewers will "learn how to do an investigation using everything from driving records and professional records to legal records, educational information, and even garbage." As Mr. Hartman says, "It's a modern reaction to our world. It can be a question of life or death."

Caution has its place. Still, too many "modern reactions," too much planning to protect against every contingency, produces an unsettling climate of negativity. Double-locking the doors to one's heart as well as one's house creates a fortress mentality.

Small signs of rebellion are beginning to appear. A humorous new paperback, "The Bad for You Cookbook," promises to "bring back cholesterol's greatest hits." And the popularity of bungee jumping, skydiving, hang gliding, and white-water rafting signals a desire for adventure and risk that cannot be contained by seatbelts and helmets.

No attitude has been more American than viewing life as a daring adventure. Coming to the New World was a risk. Opening the frontier was a risk. But no attitude today seems more American than viewing life as an endless series of risks one must spend all one's energies guarding against in the name of prudence.

Perhaps the time has come to find a middle course, which might even allow for eggs over easy. This vacillation between imitating cats with nine lives and turtles in their shells is just too hard on the old national character.

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