PUBLIC IS THE LAST TO KNOW SECRECY DECRIED IN PRODUCT SAFETY PROBES.
While the Firestone tire recall sparked a national debate on consumer safety, the recall Monday of 91,000 Go-Karts, like hundreds of other products each year blamed for deaths, will pass with little fanfare and even less public outrage, consumer advocates contend.
The 13-year-old Idaho girl whose neck was fractured when her hair got caught in the drive chain and sprocket of a Go-Kart is just one of the estimated 22,000 people killed each year by hazardous or defective consumer products.
Nearly 30 million Americans, about 1-in-10, are injured each year by items ranging from toasters to aquarium lights, toddler beds to dishwashers.
Most troubling to safety advocates are the federal regulations forbidding the public from knowing which products are under investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission - until a recall is announced weeks or even months after complaints are first lodged.
``Consumers who take the trouble to ask the question are going to lose interest if they have to wait all this time to find out if it's safe or not,'' said Mary Ellen Fise, general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington. ``They might end up buying or using a product that is unsafe.''
Those concerns were further heightened by the recall last week of 6.5 million Bridgestone/Firestone tires.
The Ford Motor Co. says Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. began receiving complaints in 1997 about defective tires believed responsible for hundreds of crashes and at least 46 deaths.
A Firestone representative said the company learned about the problem only last summer and issued a voluntary recall at the earliest available opportunity.
Delays and secrecy in the recall of consumer products are inexcusable, Fise said, because many times the unsafe items are used by or for children, as was the case in 70 of the 140 products recalled by the safety commission since August 1999.
In June alone, 475,000 teething rings were recalled because they could cause choking and 8.9 million flying dolls were called back because they could ``fly in unpredictable directions,'' injuring kids and adults.
Safety commission spokesman Ken Giles declined to say how long it took to investigate these or other products before they were pulled from shelves and the public was notified.
Giles said it would be unfair to prematurely worry the public or damage a company's reputation until tests prove a product is dangerous and the manufacturer has a chance to respond with repairs and work out details of a recall.
``Generally, Congress felt we should not simply be naming brand name products unless we had already worked out with the companies that we were about to release the information or had negotiated some sort of remedy,'' said Giles, whose agency has jurisdiction over 15,000 categories of products used in and around the home.
Most investigations do not result in a recall, Giles said. The 200 or so recalls made each year are culled from about 4,000 complaints to the agency's toll-free consumer hotline (800-638-2772) and thousands of e-mails to its Web site (www.cpsc.gov).
In many cases, manufacturers discover and report a defect or danger to the CPSC, as they are required to do by federal law, before consumers complain. It is very rare for a company to contest a recall, so most are voluntary, he said.
When a recall is needed, every effort is made to warn customers either directly through product registration information or announcements to the general public, he said.
Still, consumer advocates say that is not enough since few home products offer registration and recall notices are easy to miss unless someone happens across them in media stories or ads, posters in aisles and checkout lines or other general messages.
Few recalls generate publicity on the scale of the Firestone tires.
Manufacturers have no interest in drawing out or impeding the recall process, said Michael A. Brown, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in product safety and recall cases for product makers.
``The sooner they can find out there's a problem the happier they are because the longer something goes on the more exposure there is,'' Brown said. ``And in these days of fickle consumer satisfaction, if the consumer isn't happy with it you may not get their business again.''
For those reasons, manufacturers welcome the safety commission's efforts making it easier for complaints to be made over the phone or Internet.
And while companies want to keep the investigation period confidential, in part to protect trade secrets, they often request ``fast track'' processing of recalls to avoid accusations of stalling and putting the public at further risk, Brown said.
Until about three years ago, manufacturers were somewhat hesitant to raise a suspected safety issue because that would almost assuredly launch an investigation by the CPSC into whether the problem existed or not.
It would then take about three to four months before the public would learn of a defect or hazard, compared with as little as 20 working days under ``fast track,'' in which the company acknowledges the problem up front and begins immediately to work with federal regulators on a solution, Brown said.
A sampling of recalls over the past year from the Consumer Product Safety Commission:
--752,000 gun locks that can separate into two halves, unlocking the firearm.
--700,000 doll feeding sets with snaps on doll bib that can detach, causing choking.
--1.8 million latex pacifiers that age faster than normal, causing the nipple to detach and choke children.
--136,000 cans of fire and smoke suppressant that does not suppress fire and can intensify it.
--837,000 toy cars with tires that can detach, causing choking.
--103,000 spinning ride toys with a center column that can break, causing the child to suddenly fall back and get hit in the face by the column.
--7,500 hedge trimmers with leaking fuel tank vents that pose a fire hazard.
--19,000 mountain bikes with front suspension forks not properly welded that can break during use, causing serious injury.
Box: RECALLS (See text)