Wouldn’t it be nice to know if the stove you’re considering has been reported to spontaneously combust? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that several people have had the pogo stick fall apart mid-jump?
Next spring, you’ll be able to glean more information about problems fellow consumers have had with all sorts of products, thanks to a decision by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to publish incident reports in a public database. You won’t need a user ID or password, and if you make a complaint, there’s no need to worry: No personal information will be shared with the public.
In a way, this is great news for consumers. Until now, the CPSC couldn’t release information about potentially dangerous products without permission from the manufacturer. People could ask to view complaints the agency had received, but that involved filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which is not something people typically do when researching their next mattress purchase. This new database will make information much more accessible and transparent.
I do see some potential downsides, though. First, it’s not always clear when a problem is caused by an actual defect/design flaw as opposed to user error. It’s inevitable that people will blame perfectly safe products for their own mistakes.
Second, a database of problems people have had will, by definition, contain only negatives. If consumers are comparing two similar products, it might be logical to choose the product that has fewer reports, but will people take into consideration factors like the other product having been on the market twice as long, and therefore having more time to rack up complaints?
Third, what’s to stop a manufacturer from making (or hiring someone to make) false or exaggerated complaints against a competitor’s product? Or a trial lawyer from trying to bolster his case against a company with “reports” of similar problems?
The CPSC says they might investigate some reports, and they won’t publish reports that are proven to be false, but there will be a disclaimer essentially stating that they’re not responsible for any misinformation.
Manufacturers will also be able to comment on individual complaints, which might keep false reports at a minimum or might fuel public relations battles.
A few products you won’t find in the database are vehicles and car seats, because the CPSC doesn’t have jurisdiction over them (for the most part). Not to worry, though. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is in charge of those and has had a searchable database for years.
I have wondered what kind of impact–if any–NHTSA’s database has had on consumers and child restraint manufacturers, and if we can draw any conclusions about what effect the CPSC’s database will have. Outside of car seat geeks, I have never known of anyone who has used NHTSA’s database. Does that database strike fear into the heart of vehicle and car seat manufacturers and make them more accountable, or do they view it as a joke?
Sadly, though, most people will exert more effort researching their new TV than their child’s car seat, so the CPSC database is likely to be more successful–or at least more popular.
I read an article last year about how NHTSA is understaffed, overworked, and struggling to be effective. I can’t help but wonder if the CPSC is in a similar position. Will the new database serve as a tool to help consumers and hold companies more accountable, or will it drain resources and overwhelm the agency with a suddenly much more public spotlight?
I realize I sound cynical about the plan, but I truly am trying to remain optimistic about it. Hopefully the database will help consumers make good decisions, and hopefully it will encourage companies to make better products and respond quickly to safety issues. Hopefully the system will not be abused, and hopefully the CPSC will make positive use of its resources. Time will tell.