Exercising Enforcement

It is not surprising that Peloton Interactive Inc. thought it could refuse to tell the Consumer Product Safety Commission the identity of a child who was killed in an accident involving one of the company’s treadmills. And it was not surprising that Peloton was shocked when the CPSC unilaterally issued a press release urging owners of the Tread+ to stop using the machine in homes with small children or pets.

The reason is that the CPSC has long been one of the more toothless of the federal regulatory agencies. As shown in Violation Tracker, over the past decade it has brought only about 50 enforcement actions involving monetary penalties. During the Trump Administration, the agency almost faded away, bringing only seven actions. There were none at all during the final two years of Trump’s tenure.

Instead, the CPSC has relied on the willingness of manufacturers to reveal safety problems on their own and voluntarily recall defective products. Peloton did disclose the fatal accident on its website and to the CPSC, but by withholding key details it thwarted the agency’s ability to investigate the matter. It also softened the negative impact of the announcement by making the disingenuous claim that it was protecting the privacy of the family involved.

Peloton also applied more of its own spin in the announcement by suggesting it was enough for users to “make sure” that the space around the equipment is clear. By contrast, the CPSC press release, which the company denounced as “inaccurate and misleading,” noted that it was aware of 39 incidents involving the Tread+, including at least one that occurred while a parent was running on the treadmill. The agency said this indicated that the risks were not limited to situations in which a child has unsupervised access to the treadmills, which cost more than $4,000.

Issuing the release without the company’s consent was a remarkable step for the CPSC, given that a provision of the Consumer Product Safety Act known as Section 6(b) restricts the ability of the agency to reveal company-specific information.

The agency is also limited in its ability to impose mandatory recalls. To do so, the CPSC would need a court order, meaning that a recalcitrant manufacturer could tie up the matter in protracted litigation, all while continuing to sell the dangerous product.

All of this is to say that the less than dazzling enforcement record of the CPSC is to some extent the result of structural impediments. Past attempts to remove those restrictions were not successful, but the Peloton dispute has prompted a renewal of those efforts. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) recently introduced legislation that would repeal Section 6(b).

Corporate lobbyists have worked so hard to promote the idea of over-regulation that many people will be surprised to hear the extent to which an agency such as the CPSC is prevented from taking strong action. The Peloton case is a reminder that the real problem is often not too much regulation but too little.