When children fall victim to a gunman, that generates press interest. But the media being what it is, eleven children dying because of a toy does not get much ink. Eleven is the number of children that died "toy-related deaths" in North America in 2012, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That number may not sound high to you, but it's still eleven families having eleven funerals with eleven small coffins. The number ought to be zero. And the same year, by the way, there were an estimated 265,000 trips to the emergency room following toy-related injuries.
Choking, strangulation, electrocution, falling, slicing, piercing, these are all things that can happen to a child in the average home filled with average grown-up things. Toy design, at least, should avoid replicating these hazards, yet the field still occasionally falls short. In the past twelve months the CPSC has recalled some 17 toy designs totaling just under five million units. But "Recalls are reactive, not proactive," writes W.A.T.C.H. (World Against Toys Causing Harm), a watchdog organization dedicated to calling out dangerous toys.
"Safe design and manufacture," the organization reckons, is the "first line of defense."
Consumers have a right to expect the toys they select for their children are designed with safety as a priority. While proper labeling, regulations and recalls are important for toy safety, toy manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure safe products reach the marketplace.
Some toys that are in compliance with current industry or regulatory standards have proven to be hazardous, proving the inadequacy of existing standards. It is unbelievable that toys with parts that can detach and become lodged in a child's throat are often not considered "small parts" by the industry...Unfortunately, many consumers never receive notice of toy recalls and may not know that a dangerous toy sits like a time bomb in their child's toy box. Many of the toys recalled in the last year not only put children at risk of serious injury or death, but also are clear evidence of substandard manufacturing practices, and inadequate premarket testing.
The best weapon in the fight to prevent injuries to children continues to be safely designed and manufactured products. There is no excuse for manufacturing, importing and distributing a toy that can kill a child since toys are embellishments of life, not necessities. The burden must be on manufacturers and retailers, not consumers, to identify the known hazards before their products enter the channels of commerce.
Concerned parents can keep track of the CPSC's most recent safety recalls here.
Aspiring toy designers seeking to design safety into their products may want to read W.A.T.C.H.'s "Toy Hazards to Watch Out For" list. You also may want to check out their annual "10 Worst Toys" list for 2014, released just yesterday and filled with items carried by companies as large as Walmart, yet containing easily-imaginable risks: Some fire projectiles, others offer choking and strangulation hazards.
Sadly, their lists don't always have the power to spur the CPSC into quick action: On W.A.T.C.H.'s own report card [PDF], you can see that some of the dangerous toys they've listed previously were recalled in as little as three weeks from the time of notification—whereas others took four years. W.A.T.C.H., however, is in it for the long haul: They've been around for forty-plus years and have been releasing their reports since 1973.