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Saving the world one finger at a time

Unless you are an NPR loyalist, you may have missed a political drama unfolding far beneath the radar of human consciousness having to do with -- OK, open your eyes -- table saw safety.

Don't laugh. This is serious business, especially if you're one of those for whom "safety" and "table saw" don't show up in the same sentence. There are approximately 3,500 people in this country each year who lose a digit or worse to a table saw. So says the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is noodling new regulations to make saws safer.

This is, I confess, not my usual source of insomnia. Awful, yes, but one figures that those who engage in activity with a shark-toothed wheel spinning at high speeds in the direction of one's fingers have made peace with risk. Then again, 3,500 lopped-off digits per annum seem a little riskier than should be tolerable.

Could the product be the problem? What if the product could be made absolutely safe such that no finger ever again would fall prey to the blade?

This is, in fact, the question that regulators and manufacturers have been debating for months.

Several years ago, a fellow named Steve Gass invented a safety brake called SawStop that provides the solution to severed fingers and other body parts. The saw literally senses when the blade nicks skin and slams on brakes within three-one-thousandths of a second.

Eureka! Problem solved!

But then you knew it was too good to be true. Gass' invention, apparently, is somewhat costly, adding at least $100 to the price of a table saw. This can mean double the cost for those buying lower-end saws. And therein lies not only the specific conundrum but a microcosm of the fundamental conflict that undergirds most political division in this country. Should we let the free market handle the problem? Or should government intervene to fix it?

The conservative view would be that people have a right to be stupid and/or careless. Mistakes happen and government shouldn't add more regulations that pass on greater expense to the consumer. This also happens to be the view of saw manufacturers who have been lobbying Washington to prevent the new regulations. Besides, why should the inventor get rich off of others' misfortunes? Moreover, plenty of saw users manage not to hurt themselves, and so on.

The liberal view would be that, of course, the braking mechanism should be required. We try to make all products as safe as possible, and 3,500 lost fingers are nothing to shake a ... well, never mind. What possible argument could there be for not making table saws so safe that no working man or woman should ever face amputation, disability and so on? After all, isn't the cost to society from injured workers unable to make a living far greater than a few extra bucks added the price of a tool?

Free-marketers would argue that the market eventually will provide what consumers demand. If they insist on brakes, saw makers will build a better braking system. Consumer safety advocates would argue that sometimes the market needs a little incentive to do the right thing.

More or less, there you have it. Clearly, the answer is to install the braking technology on all saws and figure out how to reduce the cost. Voila. Where there's a will there's a way, no matter what the issue. And the problem, as usual, is the interference of ideological absolutism that blocks pragmatic solutions. If only there were a braking system for knuckleheadedness.

Email Kathleen Parker at kathleenparkerwashpost.com.