Previous posts on That Blog have explained how lawnmowers are known to injure their operators, nearby children, and uninvolved bystanders. It has been known for a long time that lawnmowers endanger users and passersby. In 1971, the US government rated lawnmowers as the second-most-dangerous product in the average household, and in 1955, the New York Times wrote that power mowers were the number-one hazard for fathers.
Why, then, do lawnmowers remain so dangerous? As in the previous post, it isn’t because it’s impossible to make them safer. Over the years, the government and other organizations have pushed for simple, easy-to-implement safety improvements.
In 1972, Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the new body quickly took on the lawnmower industry. Working with Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports), the Safety Commission produced a set of recommendations.
First, the Commission recommended implementing some safeguards against objects being launched by the mower blades – the number-one cause of lawnmower-related injury. Second, the Commission recommended limiting the noise levels of lawnmowers.
Third, the Commission recommended producing mowers with a dead-man’s switch that would stop the mower if something happened to the operator. The lawnmower industry replied that this feature would be worthless, as people would circumvent the mechanism (for example, by taping down the switch) to avoid the annoyance of restarting the mower every time they walked away from it. The Commission responded that the switch could be made to stop the blades, not the engine – but the industry still objected. Similarly, the industry did not like a proposal that ride-on mowers should be configured so that the blades do not spin when the mower is operated in reverse, a maneuver that is unnecessary for mowing grass but known to result in severe injury to children.
Finally, the Commission suggested that the warning sticker on lawnmowers – which bore an icon suggesting that a person who sticks their hand under a lawnmower’s blades might receive a minor poke in the finger – should be replaced with a symbol that more accurately conveys the extent of injury that could occur to a person who does not exercise caution around lawnmowers.
It was this suggestion that made it clear that the industry was not opposed to safety standards because they were expensive to implement, or because consumers would simply circumvent them: it was because to implement safety features would essentially be to admit that lawnmowers are dangerous. Instead of making the proposed improvements, lawnmower manufacturers fought every regulation.
The misleading safety sticker can still be seen on lawnmowers today, and lawnmower-related injuries continue to happen to thousands of Americans every year.