Rolling baby killers

Walkers cause more infant deaths and accidents than any other baby furniture. Now, thanks to the boom in e-commerce, they are readily available online.

Published December 30, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Babies careening down flights of stairs and babies with pinched fingers
and tiny heads lodged against feeding trays. To the nation's pediatricians, these tales are familiar. So, too, is the cause: baby walkers, those rolling devices that give children locomotion and parents the freedom to tend to their other domestic troubles, secure in
the knowledge that their child is occupied.

A decade of research shows that these wheeled wonders cause more
emergency room visits than any other form of baby furniture, and a study
published in October proved that walkers also hinder mental and motor

Yet walkers have not been recalled.

In fact, thanks to the boom in e-commerce, the devices are more
accessible than ever before. Online, foreign companies hock wares that
may or may not follow U.S. safety standards, while freewheeling auction
sites, trafficking in the tradition of passed-down products, have given
new life to used walkers that might have otherwise simply gathered dust
or been thrown away. EBay, for example, typically lists more than a
dozen walkers, all with bids starting at $20 or less -- about half the
price of a new walker.

Ken Giles, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, says
that recalls typically affect only products with faulty manufacturing.
Because walkers work, and because injuries most often occur in
conjunction with something else, they have been left on the market. And
they have been made safer, Giles stressed, noting a 1997 design standard
that convinced most companies to start including safety devices -- such
as brakes -- that prevent walkers from rolling down stairs.

Still, more than half of the 18 million walkers still in use today --
and being traded online -- are without these stair devices. And even
those with the new braking mechanisms are dangerous, pediatricians say.

"They allow a child who isn't mature enough to become mobile," says
Phyllis Agran, a pediatrician at the University of California, Irvine.
"They're a hazard."

Agran and other members of the American Academy of Pediatrics had hoped
that walkers would be eliminated, scratched from the household
experience like lawn darts and other bad ideas in family entertainment.
In 1995, the Academy called for an outright ban. Citing the 11 deaths
that occurred between 1989 and 1993, and the annual rate of injury
-- 25,000 in 1993 -- pediatricians also requested community outreach
programs that would retire walkers that had already been purchased.

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission refused to take the Academy's
advice. So for the past four years, pediatricians have launched their
own grass-roots education campaign, hoping to convince parents and the
public to give up walkers by their own accord.

So far, success has been limited. Several baby retailers don't sell
walkers anymore, and California has made walkers illegal in day-care
centers. Injuries have decreased as a result of these efforts. Still
-- partly because of their wide availibility on the Web -- walkers
caused 13,100 injuries in 1998, more than most other toys or infant

The problem lies with parental perception, pediatricians say. Walkers
have been around for 400 years. Most parents survived their own walker
experience unharmed, and many have watched the children of neighbors,
relatives or friends roll through the house, apparently safe.

"A lot of parents look to see if something is broken, but they don't
necessarily see the design defect," says Bill Kitzes, a consumer safety
analyst who worked for the Consumer Product Safety Commission
until 1981 and now testifies as an expert witness in product liability
cases. "When a product acts as it's supposed to, they trust it."

Too few parents realize how dangerous walkers can be, says Gary Smith, a
pediatrician and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy
at the Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. They've been duped and saddled
with guilt by the manufacturing mantra that says "adult supervision" is
enough to keep little Johnny safe -- which implies that when accidents
do occur, the parent, not the product, is to blame.

"Parents have bought the myth that if you watch your children while
they're in the walker, then they'll be fine," Smith says. "That's just
not the case."

In fact, two-thirds of all injuries associated with walkers occur
while parents are in the room, Smith says. "Gates don't stop children
from rolling down stairs. Nor can most parents catch them in time."

The only safe walker is one that doesn't move, Smith says. An
independent study by the Consumers Union found that walkers made by
Cosco, Graco, Delta, Safety 1st, J. Mason and Kolcraft kept children
from rolling down stairs. But Smith says that stationary play stations
are a better option. These usually cost between $50 and $100 and allow
a child to bounce or roll, but never beyond a three to four foot radius.
If you're looking for walking aids, there's also the Upsa Daisy. This
swing-like device relies on parents to hold the straps that support
their standing baby. (Of course, the Upsa Daisy will be of no use to
parents who use walkers primarily as a baby entertainment center.)

But convincing parents to give up a familiar product will be difficult.
In studies, parents cite various reasons for using walkers -- to keep the
infant quiet and happy, to encourage mobility and promote walking, to
provide exercise, to help keep their infant safe.

All but the first reason have been debunked. But parents persist. In
one study conducted by Smith in 1995, a third of the parents whose
children were injured by walkers put them back in the walkers when the
wound healed.

"At first, I was stunned," Smith says. "Then I thought about it. I
realized that they bought the myth. What that tells us is that nothing
short of a ban will keep children safe from these walkers.
Categorically, they should not be used."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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