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In almost every industry, the push for more safety regulations is met with resistance to change on the part of the people making money. A common argument is, “Our product meets all government standards! Therefore it is safe enough for the public to buy and use.”

So what about those government standards? Where do they come from and how do they change over time? Is it true that just because a product meets all government standards, it is safe?

According to a recent article in the Washington Post:

litigation and the civil justice system have served as the most consistent and powerful forces in heightening safety standards, revealing previously concealed defects and regulatory weaknesses and deterring manufacturers from cutting corners on safety for the goal of greater profits. –Gibson Vance

As Vance notes, auto accident deaths in the United States are currently at their lowest level since 1949—not because we’ve all become much better drivers, but because so many safety features have been added to vehicles sold in the U.S. These features weren’t added just because the auto industry decided their cars should be safer. In fact, U.S. manufacturers have often neglected to make important safety improvements because government standards don’t require them.

As power windows became more common, so too did instances of children being strangled. Seven children died within a three-month period in 2004. Manufacturers were aware of the issue, and the fix was relatively simple and inexpensive. In response to regulations in other countries, European and Asian cars already used a safer switch — one that must be pulled up to raise a window — and so did many U.S. manufacturers on cars they offered to foreign markets. Yet incredibly, U.S. manufacturers did not install the safer switches on domestic cars because NHTSA had no rules governing power-window safety. –Gibson Vance

In this case, as in many, litigation over the safety of power window switches influenced the government to impose new standards that have no doubt saved hundreds of lives since.

It’s crucial that we recognize the rule civil suits play in improving the safety of all consumer products. Almost no industry is going to voluntarily incorporate expensive safety features if it doesn’t have to, and the government (influenced, of course, by lobbyists from the industries it’s charged with policing) isn’t going to establish new safety rules without persistent pushes in the form of litigation.

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