Safety Pedal, My Foot!

Caution: Safety May Be Hazardous to Your Health. That's a warning that should be added to a lot of well-meaning innovations. Over a hundred years ago the miracle of the asbestos curtain induced theatrical spectators to believe they were safe, yet the material not only created long-term hazards but helped create the Titanic of theatre fires, the conflagration of Chicago's new, state-of-the-art Iroquois Theatre in 1903, which killed more than twice as many people as the Chicago Fire of 1871.

A Japanese inventor has been promoting a "safety" pedal combining accelerator and brake that is claimed to prevent panicked motorists from accidentally hitting the throttle when they mean to stop. There's nothing sacred about today's automotive controls, and if there are safer and more comfortable options they should be pursued.

But there's a reason we don't nudge e.g. piano pedals with the edge of the foot. It's an unnatural motion like those that make conventional computer mice potential overuse hazards. Blog commenters seem more aware of this risk than journalists who have featured the mouse. Committed early testers might show no discomfort, but who can tell the results from millions of users? And what happens when someone needs to accelerate out of an emergency? Under unusual stress, might not the new control risk lives as often as the old arrangements? Inventors, manufacturers, and journalists need to think more about long-term, cumulative effects, physiological as well as environmental.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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