Reasons to Regulate When Benefits Can’t Be Quantified

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CPSC considers costs of regulating corded window coverings, benefits to child safety.

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When is it appropriate for a federal agency to regulate a previously unregulated product or activity? The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is confronting this question currently as it considers adopting a mandatory safety standard to prevent the accidental strangulation of young children by corded window coverings. This decision will turn, in large part, on the Commission’s approach to unquantifiable benefits.

About 85 million window blinds are sold each year in the U.S., most of which use cords to raise, lower, or adjust the blinds. While corded window coverings pose no serious safety risk to adults, they present a threat to young children, especially those between nine and 17 months of age. Since 1996, there have been 285 identified incidents of child strangulation by window covering cords. Over half of those incidents resulted in death. The CPSC estimates that, on average, at least 11 fatal cord strangulations occurred every year from 1999 through 2010.

Consumer advocates argue that it is finally time for the CPSC to regulate window blinds. They contend that the window covering industry’s current system of self-regulation is deeply inadequate: those 285 strangulation incidents occurred after the industry adopted its first voluntary safety standard in the 1990s. While the standard has been revised multiple times over the past two decades, it remains ineffective. The CPSC’s Division of Mechanical Engineering found that the 2014 version would fail to address the causes of 57 percent of past strangulations.

By replacing the voluntary standard with a more stringent mandatory safety rule, the CPSC could significantly reduce or eliminate injuries and deaths associated with corded window coverings. But for this to happen, the CPSC must find that the coverings present an “unreasonable risk of injury,” under the Consumer Product Safety Act. The Act also requires the CPSC to show that the rule’s expected benefits “bear a reasonable relationship to its costs.” Whether the CSPC can approve a rule that would eliminate or make inaccessible all cords will thus depend heavily on the rule’s anticipated costs and benefits.

In a rough preliminary analysis, the CPSC estimated that it would cost the window covering industry between $413 and $619 million per year to make exclusively cordless products. The CPSC estimated the benefits of eliminating all risk of strangulation from corded coverings at $110.7 million a year in avoided deaths and medical costs associated with injuries. In short, the Commission’s back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the monetized costs of a ban on corded coverings would be greater than its monetized benefits. But agencies also routinely (and appropriately) consider important unquantifiable benefits when weighing the possibility of regulatory intervention. In subsequent analyses, the CPSC should take into account any significant unquantifiable benefits that could justify a mandatory safety standard for window coverings.

Among these unquantified benefits is the prevention of parental grief. At least one other agency has concluded that a rule that prevents death or serious injury to young children in their own homes generates a benefit not adequately captured by the traditional measure of the value of a statistical life—namely, the avoidance of situations in which parents feel responsible for serious harm to their own children. Because a mandatory safety standard for window coverings would similarly protect young children from suffering death or severe injury in their own homes, the CPSC should consider the prevention of parental grief as an unquantified benefit of any rule that would reduce or eliminate the strangulation risk posed by corded window coverings.

It is appropriate for an agency to explore this sort of unquantified benefit when considering whether to regulate. In 2011, President Obama issued Executive Order 13563, encouraging federal agencies to “consider (and discuss qualitatively) values that are difficult or impossible to quantify, including equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts.” As the CPSC continues to assess the potential costs and benefits of a safety rule for window coverings, it should give serious attention to those societal values that cannot be easily quantified.

Alicia Nieves is a law student at New York University School of Law. She collaborated with the Institute for Policy Integrity on public comments about safety standards for window coverings.