We used to have an infant child, but the little guy done macerated himself. What a dang mess! We couldn’t do nothing, so we jes kept mashin’ the flush button.
Seriously folks, I was on a nice little boat recently, but you would have thought it was the most dangerous place on the planet. I’m not going to mention the brand of boat because it’s not the builder’s fault. I’m talking about warning labels. Between the Coast Guard, ABYC and lawyers, we are awash with warnings.
My favorite, as you can see elsewhere on this page, was the infant tumbling into the toilet. It shows three ways to kill the child—drowning, a blow from the lid and, incredibly, snaking the little fellow downstream through the plumbing to the macerator.
My instinct was to blame the government or the standards people at ABYC, but the toilet warning was not one of their requirements. Raritan Engineering had devised this eyecatching little depiction of mayhem pre-emptively. When I asked Raritan Managing Director Dale Weatherstone about the apparent ridiculousness of the sign, he replied with a history lesson.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “Remember the story of when the first Amana microwave ovens came out and a woman put her cat in it to dry it off after a bath? Well, there was no label or warning info in the manual that said not to do this so the cat died, she sued and won her case. Ever since look at how many warning labels there are on everything manufactured… Unfortunately all of us in business must operate in full-blown CYA mode. This is one of the reasons we never made bilge pumps.”
As a newspaper reporter, I used to cover the federal courts, so I can top Weatherstone. I remember a case reference in one lawsuit that amazed me. A mother sued G.M. because she thought she could put the car in cruise control while she hopped in the back seat to change baby’s diaper, accident resulting. She contended that G.M. should have warned her not to try this.
Back to the boat. It actually had a label that suggested a course of action to make me less safe. It was the visibility warning stuck to the helm. It told me that I might see better standing up, rather than sitting on the helm seat. But when I stood, I dropped down several inches, thus giving me less of a view of the water ahead, particularly close-in. For that label to be accurate, it required a human with exceedingly long legs and a freakishly short torso.
I will say that the tot in the toilet and the swimmer next to the spinning propeller certainly were eye-catching, lacking only a little blood coloration to better draw the eye. Academic research into the effectiveness of warning labels is to blame here. Researchers discovered the obvious, that a scary picture is worth a thousand dire words. Or is it?
“It is very difficult to ensure that pictographs and symbols will be properly interpreted,” writes Marc Green, PhD. “One famous example is the traditional symbol for poison, a skull-and-crossbones. Many children were poisoned because they interpreted the graphic as meaning ‘pirate food,’ and therefore believed that the substance was not only safe but might be fun to eat.”
How to conclude this rant? We all hope that new people come into boating, because it is one of the finest ways to get in touch with nature and bond with one another. But if you didn’t know any better and saw all those labels, you might conclude that boats are incredibly dangerous—a combination snowblower and chainsaw.
Our signage has become yet another sign that America has achieved some kind of critical mass in its goofiness. And the best remedy for that is laughter and a good cruising boat, with which to make our escape.