Thursday, April 21, 2011

Window Blinds, Child Safety, and Willful Blindness to Opportunity Costs

The New York Times reports on new efforts by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to reduce or eliminate deaths from children strangling themselves with window blind cords.
For the last 25 years or so, manufacturers of window blinds have installed safety features and offered tips to parents to try to minimize the dangers from their products. Even so, children like Angel continue to strangle on the cords with grim regularity, an average of one a month.

Now, prodded by a Missouri mother whose daughter was strangled in a window blind, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has asked manufacturers to devise a way to eliminate the risks from window cords or perhaps face mandatory regulations. Critics of the industry complain that manufacturers have dragged their feet on addressing safety hazards for decades, making minor tweaks or putting the onus on parents to shorten cords or buy tie-down devices. Until recently, regulators have done little to crack down, they say.
I am a father of two young children, and I can't imagine anything more horrible or pointless than a child dying by being strangles in a window blind cord. Having said that, the story tells us that children are being strangled in window blind cords at a rate of one per month, i.e. twelve per year. Out of roughly 20 million children in the U.S. aged 0-5 (and roughly one billion window blinds in service , according to the NYT article), twelve are being killed each year by window blinds. That's a fatality rate of 0.0006%. That's a vanishingly small figure. (For comparison's sake, well over a thousand children under the age of 14 drown in swimming pools each year.) Twelve deaths a year must approach the theoretical limit of child safety for any widely-used consumer product.

So, what does the CPSC propose to do about this?

Require blinds manufacturers to add additional safety features to blinds or eliminate cords from blinds altogether. The second option would roughly double the retail price of window blinds.

The article reports that there are about a billion window blinds in service in the United States and that these are replaced, on average, every seven years. So, adding $1 to the cost of blinds for a new safety feature would constitute a hidden tax of $1 billion every seven years, or about $140 million annually. What else could be had for $140 million dollars a year that would save more lives or improve child welfare in other ways? How many kids could be saved from drowning for $140 million in swim lessons every year? Or saved from bike accidents by $140 million in crash helmets every year? Or diverted from obesity by $140 million in gym classes and salads every year? And, of course, these questions merely get sharper as the costs of regulatory compliance pushes the price of blinds up beyond $1.

Making window blinds safer is a huge mismanagement of scarce resources for child safety and wellness. Huge. In fact, if you could track all the money that people have to take away from spending on other things that would make their kids safer and healthier that will (prospectively) be spent on ostensibly "safer" window blinds, I would be willing to bet that more children will die prematurely by trying to make blinds safer than by accepting the status quo.

1 comment:

  1. Following those tips would help the problem be reduced. It is still the parent's responsibility to monitor their child's activities. Window blinds are not always the reason why these things happen. There could be other things that need to be considered in installing window blinds for child safety.

    Kathy Carbone