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Keep Your Children Away From Open Flames

January 28, 2007

By Walter Olson

Overzealous warning labels in the US have gone beyond a joke, but don't assume that Britain is much better

If you order a drink at an American seaside bar, it may come with a little cocktail napkin printed with a map of the local harbour. A friend recently passed along one of these on which was emblazoned the stern warning: "Not to be used for navigation." I can only say that if you are trying to land your dory or skiff with the aid of a cocktail napkin in the first place, you are probably far beyond the reach of any warning from the rest of us.

Overzealous warning labels, of course, have pervaded American life for a while now. My own favorite is one I've seen on the oblong piece of cardboard that Californians put in their car window to keep the interior from overheating on a hot day: "Do not drive with sun shield in place."

Both napkin and sun shield rated inclusion in a new collection of 101 groan-worthy warning labels published by Warner Books. Remove Child Before Folding, which takes its title from the warning on a stroller, contains such invaluable safety tips as: do not consult a telephone directory while driving your car (#84); do not use bubble-bag packing as a flotation device (#37); do not use a curling iron while sleeping (#26); and do not eat the toner in your printer cartridge (#10). Nor, unless you are a fish, should you eat or otherwise ingest common forms of fishing tackle, whether it be a barbed three-hook lure (#30) or worms either live or plastic (#49 and 50).

Some of the entries make for a sort of abnormal-psychology seminar in the ways people misuse products. Apparently some people do attempt to use a whirlpool spa, at grave risk of drowning, without first removing the tarpaulin that covers it. Impatient teens iron the hems and sleeves on the clothes they're wearing without first taking the garments off. Homeowners decide to clear their roof of snow by hoisting a ladder and hauling up a snow thrower intended for driveway use.

The labels, of course, are mostly there because product makers fear lawsuits. The author of the book, Bob Dorigo Jones, heads an anti-litigiousness advocacy group in Michigan and collects these examples by way of an annual contest. Jones says he's tracked down some of the real-life lawsuits that underlie the warnings, including ones that arose after a man unwisely used a woodworker's drill to perform self-care dentistry on his own teeth, and after a student jiggled a Coke machine until it tipped over in hopes of getting it to dispense a free drink.

Many of the resulting lawsuits wind up coming to naught. Thus a New Jersey appeals court recently reversed a $179,000 jury verdict awarded to a college student who fell out of a loft bed and argued that it should have carried a warning about that danger. ("Warning: Subject To Gravity.") But the hassle and the legal risk is deterrent enough. Thus the continued flood of warnings, redundant or otherwise ("risk of fire" on an artificial fireplace log, "may cause drowsiness" on a sleeping pill, "contains nuts" on a can of nuts).

And of course there is a yet more serious side to the matter in that over-warning can have results that are perverse for the cause of safety itself. It buries the two or three meaningful and non-obvious cautions about, say, a prescription drug, among dozens of the boilerplate kind. By inuring the public to warnings, it teaches us to tune them out.

Do not assume that Britain is far behind. Marks & Spencer makes an appearance at #76 for a warning attached to a shirt pointing out—just in case you didn't know already—that children should be kept at a safe distance from open flames.

Original Source:



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