This morning I heard NPR do a whole feature on table saw safety, but it wasn't really about safety at all. It was about efforts to urge the government to require all table saw manufacturers to adopt the SawStop technology. This is a device that instantly stops the blade and drops it below the table if the blade comes in contact with flesh. You might have seen the dramatic demonstrations of the device using a hot dog.
Now before I go any further, two declarations are in order. The first is that I carry a scar on my left thumb from an encounter more than 10 years ago with a table saw. I like to tell people that I tried to cut it off but was only 3/4 successful. And secondly, I have owned a SawStop saw since 2008. The only time the blade brake has been activated was when I first got the saw and purposely tested it -- with a hot dog, not my finger. You can see that video test here.
The whole focus of the NPR piece was what an apparent travesty it is that not every manufacturer has adopted SawStop technology. And since they won't adopt it on their own, why don't we require them to do so with legislation or at least administrative regulation through the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It was noted that the technology would add about $100 to the cost of a saw and the report began with an assertion that the table saw is the "most dangerous commonly used power tool" and accounts for 40,000 emergency room visits per year. It was all compared to requiring air bags in cars. Short shrift was given to any issues opposed to such an action, noting that manufacturers have largely balked at licensing the technology (because of cost, said the NPR reporter), and saying that requiring it on low-end saws might eliminate a whole price segment in the marketplace.
This is not the first time the CPSC has been urged to adopt the technology. SawStop's inventors never intended to make the device in the first place. They thought every saw manufacturer would beat a path to their door to adopt their invention, and they'd make their money on licensing the patent. When manufacturers did not, they tried an end run to get the government to force manufacturers to do so. That didn't work either, so they finally did what they should have done in the first place: They manufactured the device and developed a line of saws to put it in. They are great saws and reports indicate they are the fastest selling segment of the table saw market.
And that's where it should remain. Let the market decide. If the device is so great (I think it is), the market will come around to it without government intervention. Manufacturers of professional grade saws have been reluctant for more than just manufacturing and licensing costs. Some are concerned about liability issues if someone gets hurt on a saw equipped with the device. Some are concerned about false triggers that might set off the device, which not only must have a fairly expensive cartridge replaced if triggered but it destroys the blade as well. I recently visited a shop where their SawStop has gone off quite a few times, all operator error, because the bypass switch was not activated when metallic or semi-metallic material was cut. Some shops and some manufacturers don't think the added safety is worth those other costs and disruptions. I personally don't agree; that's why I bought the saw. But that was my decision. It just rubs me raw when someone tries to get the government to force me to do something because they think it's good for me.
I wouldn't drive a car without buckling my seat belt, but I'm opposed to laws requiring seat belts and air bags. I just don't think it's the business of the government to try to protect fools from themselves, whether it's in cars or in the woodworking shop.