Let's say you're shopping for a new washing machine. Would you check SaferProducts.gov for reports of dangerous models? Do you even know what SaferProducts.gov is? If you're like the people interviewed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) for its report on this two-year-old consumer website, the answers are no and no. Which is a shame, since once consumers learn about SaferProducts.gov, they mostly find it useful.
Launched in March 2011 by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), SaferProducts.gov is designed to give consumers a place to make online reports of product safety issues and also search for warnings and complaints from other consumers. The CPSC has promoted the site using social media, public service announcements, and printed materials, but word has not spread quickly enough. In fact, none of the consumers who completed usability tests for the GAO had previously heard of SaferProducts.gov. And once they were introduced to the site, many expected to find information on safe products, not unsafe ones. "Several consumers commented that the website would be more aptly named UnsafeProducts.gov," the report notes.
If the name SaferProducts.gov sounds more aspirational than accurate, that's because it reflects the government's efforts to stem product recalls in the wake of spiking recalls during 2007 and 2008 when many toys covered in lead-based paint were pulled from store shelves.
The good news for the CPSC is that once consumers spent time with SaferProducts.gov, they found it generally useful. In particular, many said the site would help them find out if products that have not been recalled had any safety issues. That's been the experience of Consumer Reports with SaferProducts.gov. The site has been a very useful tool in numerous investigations, including reports on shattering glass cookware and microwave fires. That's why we continue to defend the site as an essential public resource. That's also why we're pleased to hear that the CPSC supports the GAO's recommendations to make a better effort to increase the awareness and usability of SaferProducts.gov.
To test drive the website for yourself, go to SaferProducts.gov. Or you can read the full GAO report: "Awareness, Use, and Usefulness of SaferProducts.gov."