Most Americans have a lot of stuff. If you doubt it, walk around your house or apartment and take inventory: furniture, draperies, closets full of clothes and shoes, kitchen appliances, televisions, computers, lamps and light fixtures of every description, hair dryers, tables, chairs, probably a washer and a dryer. Walk in the garage and you might find a bicycle next to the car, an assortment of tools, maybe some old sporting goods tucked away. In the backyard, there may be a grill, patio furniture, maybe a swing set and slide. If there’s a child in your house, you’ll find an entire world of other stuff: cribs, bassinets, strollers, play pens, diapers, and pajamas. And scattered everywhere will be stuffed animals and toys.
In short, a lot of stuff. And at least some of it may be unsafe. It’s possible, for instance, that you own rugs that are fire hazards; bicycles that can fall apart as you ride them; patio loungers that can pinch, lacerate, and maybe even amputate a finger or toe; children’s sleepware that can catch fire easily; toys that can poison children with lead paint; and on and on.
How do you know if some of your possessions are hazards? And what can you do about it? Before 1972, you wouldn’t have known, and if you had suffered an injury, there was little you could have done about it.
By the early 1960s, Congress had made great strides in protecting food and ensuring drugs were safe and effective. In the late 1960s, it set up a federal agency that began the decades-long project of making automobiles safer. But for hundreds of thousands of consumer products—lawn mowers, camping equipment, power tools, gas-powered generators, and so on—you were pretty much on your own.
There were exceptions: In 1953 Congress passed the Flammable Fabrics Act which set standards for clothing, and three years later it passed the Refrigerator Safety Act, which required releases inside refrigerators. The laws were passed after heartrending news stories about children killed or injured when their clothing caught fire or they were trapped inside discarded appliances.
But aside from those two laws, Congress was silent on consumer product safety. Why? As we’ve written, governments aren’t eager to take on new responsibilities, especially when they involve regulating the private sector. For that to happen, governments have to be dragged in by public outrage or invited in by businesses themselves. And beyond governments’ hesitancy was a practical problem: How do you regulate hundreds of thousands of consumer items, many of which change regularly?
Answer: For the most part, you don’t regulate them before they’re offered for sale. But you can identify dangerous products quickly, force companies to get them out of consumers’ hands, and make sure defects are solved in future designs. To be sure manufacturers take their responsibilities seriously, you can fine companies that don’t follow the rules. Finally, you can set safety standards for products posing the greatest dangers, such as those harming children or ones causing numerous injuries to adults.
Since the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Act in 1972, that’s what the federal government has done. The agency set up under the law, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), doesn’t stop products from being sold (with some exceptions, such as those containing lead paint). But it reacts quickly when products are found to have defects. And it does it in a way that President Ronald Reagan might have endorsed: trust but verify.
Here’s how it works: The CPSC requires that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers report potentially hazardous products to the agency within 24 hours of receiving creditable complaints that a product is unsafe or has harmed someone. If the product involves a “significant risk” to consumers, then the manufacturer must launch a public recall. The recall can involve refunding money, replacing the product or its defective parts, offering safety equipment, or supplying a software patch. (Incidentally, this is why you should fill out and mail in registration cards or register on the company’s website when you buy a product. It puts you on the recall list.)
Those are the “trust” parts. But the CPSC has some “verify” functions that keep manufacturers honest. First, it has its own hotline and website so consumers can report safety problems directly to the CPSC. (It shares these reports with manufacturers.)
Second, it has a staff of 520, including 120 investigators and compliance officers. If a manufacturer doesn’t respond to legitimate safety concerns, it can expect to hear from one of these investigators.
Finally, the agency surveys emergency rooms and examines death certificates. For nearly half a century, the CPSC has asked nearly 100 hospital emergency rooms to report on injuries they have treated. (This is called the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.) The information is entered in a CPSC-supplied computer and includes the type of injury, the age and gender of the patient, the setting of the accident, and the products that were involved. Separately, the agency purchases death certificates from state governments to identify deaths associated with products.
The results are a remarkable record of how Americans are injured and killed. If there are trends—say, a rash of accidents involving adults slipping on treadmills or children swallowing toxic products—the CPSC knows them almost as soon as they happen.
And if the problems are endemic—not a single shoddy treadmill design but repeated problems with multiple manufacturers—the CPSC can set safety standards. It prefers doing this through voluntary standards, which means industry groups, consumer advocates, private experts in consumer safety, and CPSC staff agree on, say, how you make furniture that doesn’t tip over and crush toddlers. Or how you can make clothes dryers that don’t create fire hazards. Or how to make helmets for cyclists, skateboarders, and football players that actually protect their heads in a collision.
But if voluntary standards cannot be agreed on or if manufacturers ignore the voluntary standards, the CPSC can impose mandatory standards. And at that point violations can result in civil or even criminal penalties.
You can see how this works in two areas: the agency’s efforts to make children’s products (clothing, bedding, and toys) safer; and its efforts to reduce injuries from a recreational product called an all-terrain vehicle.
The federal government’s concerns about children’s safety date to those 1950s laws about fabrics and refrigerators. And they continued for decades after the passage of the 1972 law establishing the CPSC. In 2010 Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which increased the agency’s budget from $80 million in 2008 to $136 by 2014 and expanded its powers, particularly in regulating children’s products. This came on the heels of extensive news coverage about toys made in China coated in lead paint.
But that wasn’t the only thing on Congress’ mind in 2010. So was the astonishing carnage caused by recreational vehicles. All-terrain and off-road vehicles, commonly called ATVs, look sort of like motorcycles with three or four wheels and are meant to be ridden across the countryside, not on highways or roads. They have an enthusiastic fan base who make up some of the most endangered people in America, many of whom are children and teenagers. (In 2004, 44,000 children were injured and 150 killed from accidents while riding these vehicles.)
In the past 15 years, the CPSC has tried getting the ATV industry to commit to voluntary standards that could prevent rollovers, passenger ejections, and fires. When this didn’t reduce injuries, it moved to mandatory standards. Finally, in 2018 it levied the largest fine in agency history, $27.25 million, against a Minnesota-based manufacturer of all-terrain vehicles.
So have the federal government’s 50-year effort to improve consumer product safety had results? In other words, are fewer people dying or being injured today than in in the past? It’s hard to say definitively because the universe of consumer products is large and fast-growing, and the interaction of humans with these products is complex. For instance, when someone is injured by falling off a ladder, was it poor ladder design or carelessness?
The answer is that you can’t know in a particular incident but you can make reasonable assumptions from the aggregate. For instance, if the number of people falling off ladders is steady year after year, and then the number rises sharply, there may be more involved in these accidents than human error. And if those unfortunate people were falling off just one brand of ladder, that’s even more reason for suspicion—and for the CPSC to investigate and perhaps take action.
So let’s look at the best tool we have for seeing accidents in the aggregate, the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Since it was introduced in the 1970s, the system has changed a few times, but its data have been consistent since 2001.
So has the number of emergency room visits tied to consumer products declined from 2001 to 2020? Answer: No, they haven’t, not in absolute numbers.
In 2001 the NEISS estimated (based on its sample of 100 emergency rooms) there were 11.3 million visits to ERs, and 19 years later there were 11.6 million, a slight increase. But the population of the United States grew during that period. So if you look at the ER visits per 1,000 people, which is a better measure, they have declined: from 40 per 1,000 people in 2001 to 35 in 2020, a modest improvement.
An even better measure of CPSC’s impact, though, may be to look at the products it has concentrated its efforts on during those years: making children’s products safer and reducing the mayhem caused by recreational vehicles. And in those areas we see big improvements.
In 2001 there were 334,266 emergency-room visits caused by children’s nursery equipment or toys. By 2020 the number was 238,498, a decrease of 29 percent.
There were similar decreases in ATV injuries. In 2007, the peak year for recreational vehicle accidents, 278,671 incidents resulted in emergency-room visits. By 2020 the number was 229,974, a nearly 18 percent decrease. (This was as population and ATV sales were growing.)
What can we make of this? Handed in 1972 what seemed to be an impossible task—make hundreds of thousands of consumer products safer, including products that change almost yearly—the CPSC handled it in ways that played to government’s strengths. It invested in research and data collection and expanded its ability to collaborate with interest groups and companies. It focused on products causing the greatest problems but kept an eye out for new problems that may arise. Its first route was voluntary cooperation but, if that didn’t work, it was unafraid to compel compliance.
The CPSC was aided in its work by the temperament of bureaucrats, which is to be calm, fair and rules-based; to remain steadfast in purpose and focused on the public good; to trust those who are regulated but verify that they’re doing what they’ve promised.
Two final notes: Regulating the safety of consumer products is another example of government putting the brakes on a “race to the bottom.” As we explained in an earlier posting, a race to the bottom is where companies cut corners in order to cut costs, creating negative externalities (in this case, products that may harm to their buyers). By holding everyone to the same standards—no lead paint on toys, ATVs must be equipped with seatbelts, no clothes dryers that can cause fires—manufacturers can compete instead on quality, features, and efficiency.
And it’s worth asking if regulation has raised the prices of consumer goods. Maybe the most exhaustive study of this question was this one, completed in 2017 by researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom. They studied the impact of energy efficiency standards on home appliances but their findings apply equally to safety standards.
And those findings? “We find no evidence to suggest that more stringent energy efficiency standards hurt consumers by increasing price or lowering quality. Rather, we find evidence that price declines and substitution toward new products accelerates with stricter standards.”
Translation: When government curbs negative externalities like pollution, energy usage, worker safety, and consumer safety, companies find more socially beneficial ways of competing. And rather than a decline in quality and rise in price, the reverse often takes place: better quality, lower prices, and a safer and healthier world.
And for all that, we can thank government.
Give the credit to: federal government
Photo by Arctic Warrior licensed under Creative Commons.