Too stupid for a bungee?

Published 6:29 am Friday, May 28, 2010

For the past few days, I’ve been conducting a little experiment. I hand someone one end of a brand new 24-inch bungee cord, then take a big step back while keeping hold of the other end.

The reactions have been nearly identical: Slightly widened eyes and then a focus on the bungee– or, more specifically, on the metal hook that’s tied to the end of the cord that I’m holding.

That a suddenly unrestrained bungee would be an unpleasant surprise is obvious to everyone. No one needed me to tell them, “Uncontrolled release can cause severe injury to unprotected bodily parts, particularly eyes.” They also didn’t need me to add 48 more words about bungee safety.

The cord’s manufacturer, however, was less confident in its customers’ acumen, because it put those 60 words on an attached tag, repeated them in Spanish — and just in case that wasn’t enough, said it again on a second tag.

This sort of thing has become so common that mostly we don’t even notice. In this case it was the second tag that caught my attention when I went to buy bungee cords for my ramshackle trailer.

When I bought a new chainsaw a few years ago, it did not surprise me that half of the operating manual was safety warnings. A chainsaw is an inherently dangerous tool that even experienced operators manage to use improperly from time to time.

But a bungee cord?

How hard can it be?

What most manufacturers have learned is that 99.9999 percent of their customers don’t need childish safety warnings – but that the tiny remaining minority would be perfectly pleased to suffer a bungee cord injury in exchange for the opportunity to sue the company.

The warnings are an attempt to block lawsuits, which became widespread because juries at some point began to find it believable that people are unable to safely stretch a length of rubber and elastic — and that businesses which don’t treat all their customers like idiots are somehow liable for any misadventures.

In any reasonable world, we would all take exception to being treated like we’re stupid.

We have, sadly, become so accustomed to the idea of being babied, that we don’t think twice about being told, “don’t snap yourself in the eye with a bungee cord.”

In part, that’s because we all make the calculation that these warnings are anti-liability measures and ignore them appropriately. So they’re not a personal insult. They are, however, a commentary on our society’s increasing willingness to trade away self respect — even if as a group – for… well, we’re trading it away because manufacturers that limit lawsuits can keep their prices down.

We’re trading it away for a few fractions of a cent.

And we’re more and more out of touch with what it remains to be personally responsible, because we are surround – absolutely surrounded – with signs that someone else has already thought about the problems and dangers.

Our great-grandparents would not recognize a society in which we are given instruction on how to use a bungee cord, a hammer or a razor.

It is probably going to take a major shock to our social system to put us on a new course. The sooner the better, because getting off the track towards utter dependence will only get harder the longer we wait.