While perhaps you can ignore the holiday decorations that sprout up all over America’s malls right after Halloween, you absolutely know the holidays are here when the various citizens groups and media outlets begin publishing their lists of “deadly”, “dangerous” or “toxic” toys pulled from reports with ominous titles like “Trouble in Toyland!”. Like much about the holidays, these lists are annual traditions.
The holidays must be here because this week has seen a spate of such news stories, with one national network story declaring “that toys are becoming more dangerous”. Since this conclusion runs counter to my recollections from my days as a CPSC commissioner, I checked out the latest CPSC report on toy-related deaths and injuries, published last month. The study concluded that there was no statistically significant upward trend in the number of toy-related injuries in 2013, or indeed for the proceeding five years.
Several of the news stories have focused on ride-on toys, such as wagons, tricycles and, in particular, scooters as being especially dangerous and a growing risk to children. But, the CPSC report did not find any upward trend in the injury numbers for these products over the past few years. Scooters became wildly popular with children in the mid- to late-1990’s and, as usage of the product grew in these years, so did injuries. From 1999 to 2001 there was an alarming increase in the number of scooter injuries and deaths. The injury rate for these products, however, has stabilized since the early part of the century, and the CPSC does not see a statistically significant increase in its numbers. Parsing through all these statistics does not make for a good news story so the viewer is left with an entirely different impression—that injuries caused from scooters and other ride-on toys are on the rise.
My point is not to suggest no child will ever be injured playing with a toy or riding on a scooter. To the contrary, the statistics show that injuries do happen. And, of course, we all need to be on the lookout for toys that do not meet federal safety standards or are defective; the CPSC is always vigilant in removing such products from the market. But we should also keep two other things in mind. First, as the CPSC itself notes, the injuries it complies may be related to but are not necessarily caused by the toy—a big difference. And more importantly, how toys are used, rather than how they are made or designed, more often than not determine whether an injury will occur. It is this aspect of toy safety—consumer education–which the media and consumer watchdogs seem to leave to others, and that is a shame.
In one of the media reports, one of the groups publicizing its dangerous toy list said that until we can trust that toys are safe, “parents need to watch out for common hazards when shopping for toys.” Oh, please . . .until we can trust that toys are safe?!. My response, as a parent, is that I will never cede to others my responsibility to think about whether something I give my child is a hazard.
Since toy-related injuries have remained relatively stable over the years, my challenge to those who make up these lists and report on them is this: Rather than seeking attention through scare tactics, why not spend more time talking with consumers about the safe use of toys, about buying age appropriate toys for children, about keeping toys with small parts and other choking hazards out of the reach of small children and about using appropriate safety gear when getting on that scooter. Why not work affirmatively and constructively to push the injury trends downward?
The CPSC will soon vote on its spending priorities for the current fiscal year. Perhaps an effort to channel the creativity of the toy industry, the media and those who say they represent the public into a public education effort to remind all of us that safety—especially with respect to children– is a shared responsibility would be a worthwhile undertaking. Perhaps such a sustained joint effort could actually reduce the number of toy-related injuries. And wouldn’t that be a happy holiday?