Will Table Saws Make the Cut for Regulation?


No matter how you slice it, table saws are a dangerous tool estimated to cause more than 54,000 injuries a year from lacerations or worse.

So no surprise when the Consumer Product Safety Commission—the government agency charged with protecting people from injury and death from unsafe products—was asked to do something about it.

Saw

On July 11, 2006, during the George W. Bush administration, the commission voted 2-1 to move forward on a rule that would establish standards for a system to reduce or prevent injuries from table saws.

The commission had discovered a new type of sensor on the market that could detect when a human finger got too close to the saw blade and automatically stop it. It estimated the new technology could reduce injuries by as much as 90 percent.

But nothing in Washington is easy, especially when it comes to regulating.

More than a decade has passed, yet the commission still has not been able to issue a final rule, in part because of near-monopoly patents on the new technology, but in part because of the rulemaking process itself.

Since 1993, federal agencies have been directed to regulate only when required by law or compelling public need, such as failures of private markets to protect or improve public health and safety.

In this case, analysts at the Regulatory Studies Center at the George Washington University argued that consumers are “well aware” that saw blades pose risks to health and safety.

There is no market failure because consumers already have the option to purchase safer table saws with the new technology—at a steep price, the analysts said.

If consumers were choosing less-safe table saws because of the existence of a monopoly, then an argument could be made that material failures of the private markets were responsible for some portion of the injuries, they said.

“By choosing to buy less expensive—and less safe—saws, consumers are revealing their preference for other product offerings than the one that the Commission is proposing to mandate,” the analysts said.

In other words, let the buyer beware.