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CPSIA – John Stuart Mill and Crib Safety

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

John Stuart Mill
1828

The CPSC recently congratulated itself for banning drop-side cribs. Scott Wolfson clucked on Twitter: “RT @Scott_wolfson: The lifesaving crib rules approved by #CPSC today are a key part of the #CPSIA. #CPSC wants all babies to have a #safesleep.” Other people, like Rep. Jan Schakowsky, also rushed forward to take credit for this change in regulation.

To judge from these press releases, a real crisis in public safety has been addressed. Is that true?

Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who once said that history is written by the victors???

I have not touched the crib issue previously because, frankly, it’s too hot to handle. Who would want to defend a product associated with baby deaths? There but for the grace of G-d goes I. On the other hand, the projected compliance expense of $550 million is breathtaking, particularly given the fact that the agency’s ruling is both retroactive and mandates replacement of cribs in certain childcare facilities. Even Commissioner Robert Adler calls this expansion of the CPSC’s role as “uncharted territory“. This sets a new precedent for government (CPSC) intrusion that I find troubling, even under these circumstances.

The always astute Lenore Skenazy questions the CPSC’s justification of three fatalities a year linked to drop-side cribs. She labels herself “subversive” for looking at the numbers. [You know you were thinking it, admit it!] Based on the injury figures released by the CPSC, she notes that the deaths attributed to drop-side cribs are less than those attributed to spider bites (five per year). She puts the drop-side crib-related deaths in the context of 4 million births per year and asks where the limit is in our effort to save ourselves.

Skenazy rattles off many other death statistics (such as 1,300 per year from stair falls) for further perspective on the scale of the drop-side crib “crisis”. She does not discuss pool deaths, which number between 1-2 per day and generate 11-12 childhood emergency room treatments for serious injuries daily. But the obsession of this CPSC is drop-side cribs, so we should not worry about those other things . . . .

Lenore makes a good point. What IS the limit? And how much should we pay? Is this really a public health crisis, and if it is, aren’t all those other causes of childhood deaths similarly a crisis? Who gets to decide which crisis is our top priority?

As J.S. Mill points out, despair sells well so we are naturally inclined to accept on face value the shrill self-congratulations of the politicians who are so busy making us so safe. I have been battling the same self-justifications and self-praise by politicians and consumer “advocates” over lead for three years. Does the absence of injury statistics matter to anyone?

Interestingly, the CPSC provides some context on its crib decision. If you read through the document announcing the change, you will find out a few interesting tidbits:

  • Despite Ms. Schakowsky’s claim to have created this regulatory storm, the industry has been working on standards for many years. ASTM F 1169–10, the full-size crib standard, was originally published in 1999 and has been revised several times since 1999, including 2010. The same can be said of the voluntary standards for non-full-size cribs. The statement in the CPSC press release noting that “[t]he federal crib standards had not been updated in nearly 30 years” is pretty misleading – the voluntary standards relied upon by the agency and the industry have been regularly revised. [Until this administration took over, the CPSC relied on voluntary standards as a matter of public policy.] Even more remarkably, please note that the current CPSC action adopts these voluntary standards as the new mandatory standards with minimal amendments, calling the adopted standards “substantially the same” as the voluntary standards. Hmmm.
  • The CPSC initially issued mandatory standards for cribs in 1973 and amended them in 1982. There has been on-and-off activity at the agency in the ensuing years. Crib safety was not a new subject to the Commission when Ms. Schakowsky announced the latest crisis. Ms. Schakowsky didn’t solve the crisis either when she purportedly wrote this provision of the CPSIA. Is it actually certain that there ever was a crisis in drop-side cribs . . . or was Ms. Schakowsky simply looking to bulk up her hagiography?
  • Annual sales of cribs are estimated at 2.4 million per year, including non-full-size cribs (approximately 300K per year). Thus, over 11 years (2000-2010), that’s 32 deaths and an estimated 26.4 million cribs sold and 40 million babies born. Crisis? There are approximately 591 models of full-size cribs and 81 non-full-size cribs on the U.S. market, according to the CPSC. In recent years, the CPSC has recalled 11 million “dangerous” cribs defect” since 2007 (about 40% of the estimated total sales in the last 11 years).
  • A pilot CPSC project of data gathering on crib injuries from November 1, 2007 to April 11, 2010 generated a total of 3,584 “incidents”, including 147 deaths associated with full-size cribs. Some of these incidents go back as far as 1986, btw. Of the 147 fatalities, 107 were not related to any structural defect in any way. Of the 35 fatalities related to “structural problems”, 18 were related to drop-side cribs. [The CPSC document contains a detailed analysis of the injuries, as well.] So of entire pool of fatalities from cribs in this period, 18 of 147 were related to drop-side cribs in some way – 12% of the total fatalities. The CPSC press release somehow omitted this additional fact.

This data cannot be correlated to the December 17 CPSC press release in which they note 32 deaths since 2000 (11 years). There is no data provided on the AGE, CONDITION or QUALITY of the cribs involved in the deaths, no information on the MAINTENANCE or STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY of those cribs or whether the hardware failure was apparent or not. In its May 7th press release, the CPSC notes however that the 32 deaths include “some [fatalities which] occurred in cribs where the drop side detached without caregivers noticing the detachment, while some other deaths occurred after a consumer tried to repair the detached drop side, but the repair ultimately failed.” [Check out the photos to see what a consumer "repair" might look like.] No quantification whatsoever. Arguably, this CPSC statement suggests that any solution to the problem involves, in whole or in part, user education.

The CPSC did not supply data to distinguish between product failures/defects and parental or caregiver error or misuse. It’s all laid at the feet of the crib design. The CPSC’s “analysis” is pretty simple – you don’t need drop-sides for your baby to sleep comfortably in a crib, and if we eliminate drop-sides from the market, presumably a certain number of unnecessary infant deaths can be avoided. It’s a presumption, however.

It’s hard to argue with their logic but it’s also hard to know what has been accomplished. We do know that the ban of drop-side cribs costs a lot of money, however. Isn’t that relevant, even a little bit? If user education is essential to ANY “solution”, how do we know we have spent our $550 million well or achieved anything whatsoever? The precise mechanism leading to the fatalities cannot be determined from the paltry data released to the public. Table pounding by advocates is, regrettably, not data. As Mr. J.S. Mill notes, the advocates’ histrionics are likely to be taken as “sage” in this case. What if we knew that ten years out, the replacement cribs caused the same number of deaths or perhaps even MORE deaths? The rate of fatalities in these cribs in already remarkably low. How can we be sure that the new cribs will be better? Should we just take Nancy Cowles’ word for it?

I find it interesting that the crib industry has been rather quiet on this change in rules. There are literally dozens of suppliers of cribs in this country, and more than 11 million units have been recalled. Why such quiet from these companies? I suspect the reason is that most consumer do not blame the brands for these recalls, and few people are motivated to return their cribs. [That includes me. Consumer advocates label recalls "unsuccessful" when we the people don't do what they want us to do.] So the cost of the recalls is probably modest BUT the government is mandating that $550 million be spent by childcare providers on NEW cribs. Why would crib manufacturers object to this cost-effective stimulus plan?! Surely many people taking the old drop-side crib out of the attic will say “Whoa, that was recalled. I better buy a new one . . . .” Many, many people.

Thank you, CPSC, for making us so darned safe! The crib industry probably loves you (secretly). Not so sure about hotels and childcare providers. Ultimately I know who pays for all this, however, and it isn’t the consumer advocates or the regulators. It’s the guy who stares back at you from your bathroom mirror.

The CPSC for its part did something easy and self-serving: they saved us from yet another lurking danger that none of us could see, all at our expense. I wonder if the CPSC would be as enthusiastic in their actions if they had to pay for it out of their own budget (or pocket). The money they spend is OURS, and they never even need to steady their hand to write the check. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s much easier to spend someone else’s money, especially when there are a lot of zeroes involved. The CPSC is making us do it for our own good. Does anyone see a problem here?

The new rule sets dangerous new standards for CPSC (government) intrusion into our businesses and into our lives. The CPSC’s action means that the Commission thinks it’s now okay to take retroactive action with impunity. This is a BIG change in regulatory policy. Bob Adler notes: “The Commission has never before entered into a rulemaking, whether or not required by Congress, that not only has retroactive applicability, but also requires the replacement of every product in a given product class – particularly in an occupational setting like child care facilities.” OMG – and this is okay . . . why??? Because he says it’s a crisis and it’s important to do.

This is government power without restraint, and it’s a serious issue. This is much more serious that drop-side crib deaths. I do not know how to run a business in a market regulated by people who make up the rules to suit their mood. I thought there were protections against this.

Let’s hope Mr. Adler and his associates made a good judgment for all of us. They are spending our money and we have no choice but to do as we’re told. That’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” nowadays, I guess.

I wonder what Abe Lincoln would think of this government . . . .

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CPSIA – John Stuart Mill and Crib Safety

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