The Elusive Balance Between Safety and Common Sense

I was eating some shrimp the other night. (This, by the way, marks only the third time I have ever begun an essay with that sentence.) I was about to open a jar of cocktail sauce when I noticed the label. Pictured thereon were several shrimp covered with the cocktail sauce, along with the words “Serving Suggestion”. It turns out a lot of food products feature that two-word phrase in order to protect consumers from fraud. In other words, I might get the idea there were actually some shrimp hidden in the bottle of cocktail sauce if the words “Serving Suggestion” were not prominently featured.

A box of brownie mix with a photo of brownies and a glass of milk must include “Serving Suggestion” to let unwary users know they should not sift through the mix looking for the milk.

Some irons feature the warning, “Do not iron clothes on body”. Nytol (a sleep aid) alerts consumers it “may cause drowsiness”. My Christmas lights warn they are for “indoor or outdoor use only”. I was once given a package of airline nuts which included the following helpful instructions: “Open packet; eat nuts.” And I was saved from a tragic mistake years ago when I noticed my son’s baby stroller warning: “Remove child before folding”.

We are living in an age when the only acceptable risk is no risk. But where do we draw the line? If 55 miles per hour is less lethal than 65, as many highway safety advocates claim, isn’t 45 mph even safer? Why not 35?

The argument often put forth by those who worry about such matters is, “If it saves just one life, it’s worth it.” But that’s simply not true, nor is it practical. Skiers are killed and seriously injured every year, but there’s not much call for banning the sport. People die in bathtub and shower falls almost daily, but no one is suggesting an end to bathing.

There has to be some balance between safety and common sense. I don’t need to be warned not to stop my chainsaw with my hand, nor that my dice are not for human consumption, nor that my TV remote control device is not dishwasher safe (all actual product alerts). Besides, anyone who needs such warnings is unlikely to read or pay attention to a label anyway.

At the rate we’re going, we may need to require the following on consumer products: “Warning! This label could be insulting to your intelligence.”