Tipping Points

What do flat-screen televisions, soft-drink vending machines, and spectacular bridges have in common? All have hidden design flaws that engineers evidently had not expected, yet that have inadvertently encouraged dangerous behavior.

Consider a new study cited by MSNBC:

Nearly 17,000 children were rushed to emergency rooms in 2007, the last year for which complete figures were available, after heavy or unstable furniture fell over on them. . . . [S]uch injuries had risen 41 percent since 1990.

Frequently to blame were

ever-bigger flat-panel televisions that Americans have brought into their homes in that time, along with the entertainment centers and narrow, less-stable stands to hold them. Injuries from televisions alone accounted for nearly half of all injuries related to falling furniture during the study period -- 47 percent.

Grownups also can go astray with fatal results, tilting vending machines to dislodge cans. In 1995, the Consumer Products Safety Commission worked with the soda can industry to develop warning labels for the machines after finding that rocking them -- whether to steal a drink or just to shake loose a stuck purchase -- was killing an average of two people a year and injuring six others. (The physics and economics of dispensing cans by gravity makes the equipment more top-heavy than it appears.)

Design masterpieces, and even local prominent structures, may have a risk of their own. They can become what lawyers call "attractive nuisances," unintentionally promoting lethal behavior. The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world's most beautiful spans, has drawn potential suicides almost since its completion in 1937. So have other bridges without its global renown. Psychiatric studies suggest that people deterred by barriers are unlikely to seek other means of self-destruction.

Should the respective designers have known better? "Childproofing" homes was already a familiar concept when flat-screen televisions were introduced. Old-style pinball machines had tilt mechanisms for decades, revealing an impulse to manhandle equipment for an advantage.  And suicides were sadly familiar on the Eiffel Tower and, closer to home, the Empire State Building.

The cultural reception of technology helped create all three risks. Thin new televisions inspire an illusion of lightness that can lead parents to forget how heavy many of these sets were to move into place.  The casualties of the vending machines have been disproportionately young men ready to challenge machinery. (The physician who wrote the best-known report was based at Walter Reed Army Hospital.) And reports of suicides by the press might have enhanced the romantic aura of the act while neglecting its horrific consequences, even for the few, severely injured, survivors.

These examples can help us think about other hazards -- from nanoparticles through space travel. We can't foresee all interactions of values and behavior with the things we create, but with more interdisciplinary study we can improve our record, and we can and must respond more quickly when they begin.