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Demands Ban on Lawn Darts : Daughter's Death Spurs a Father's Sad Crusade

September 27, 1987|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

David Snow didn't even want lawn darts when he went shopping last April. He wanted a volleyball set, but all the department store had was volleyball in a combo pack with two other games. Fine. He took it. The darts would stay in the box.

Then one Sunday, Snow's 9-year-old son, Paul, and some other children in the family's attractive Riverside neighborhood took the slender, metal-tipped, one-pound darts out of the garage and began playing with them in the back yard, trying to lob them into plastic rings on the ground.

One of the children threw one too high and too far. It sailed over the fence and came down in the front yard, where Snow's other child, Michelle, 7, was playing with her doll. With a force one researcher estimated at 23,000 pounds per cubic inch, the dart penetrated her skull. Within minutes she collapsed. Three days later doctors pronounced her clinically dead.

Like many anguished parents before him, Snow looked for a way to make sense of the tragedy. "I promised her that the toy that took her life would never take another," he said. "She knows that Dad always kept his promises."

Such vows all too often crumble under the weight of prolonged grief. But today, less than six months since his daughter died, David Snow stands on the brink of single-handedly conquering the lawn dart. On Thursday, the three-member federal Consumer Product Safety Commission will meet in Washington to consider banning the product.

The speed with which the commission has moved on the issue is regarded with astonishment by consumer activists and government staff members familiar with the regulatory agency's snail-like pace.

Equally remarkable, these observers say, is how effectively Snow--a 39-year-old aerospace production supervisor who had never been to Washington or even written a letter to a congressman until he began his crusade--turned himself into a well-organized, emotionally powerful one-man lobbying machine.

One speech made the biggest difference. Eight weeks after Michelle died, Snow delivered 20 minutes of searing testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee, condemning the commission for failing to enforce regulations intended to keep lawn darts out of the hands of children. Within days, the commission began an investigation of lawn darts that substantiated Snow's claims.

"I've been in a lot of hearings and I've never seen anybody make that kind of impression," one House aide said. "You could have heard a pin drop."

The dispute over lawn darts is a small speck in the recreation industry, compared to controversies such as all-terrain vehicles, which have been blamed for hundreds of deaths. But despite his narrow focus, Snow inadvertently became a player in a larger story: the mounting criticism of the Consumer Product Safety Commission under its chairman, Terrence M. Scanlon, who has argued that the commission should seek voluntary compliance from manufacturers of potentially unsafe products rather than turn to enforcement actions that might economically injure businesses.

Last month, as Snow's campaign gained strength, Scanlon stripped the agency's longtime chief of compliance--who favors a ban on lawn darts--of much of his authority. That reassignment, in turn, provoked congressional calls for Scanlon to resign. It also led, on Friday, to the introduction of legislation to weaken the commission's reliance on voluntary compliance and require it to more quickly crack down on potentially unsafe products.

Thanked by Congressmen

At a press conference in Washington, the bill's co-authors, Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) and Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio), thanked Snow for motivating them.

All of which is fine, David Snow allowed, but right now the only thing in the world that matters is finding a way to pull lawn darts off store shelves. Now.

"I want to get these damned darts," he said slowly. "These things killed my child. If I don't do anything, it's just a matter of time before someone else gets killed. I'm trying to save lives . I'm going to get them off the market. Whatever it takes."

With grim single-mindedness, Snow has spent hundreds of dollars a month on phone calls and has written scores of long, perfectly typed letters to public officials, placing a photograph of Michelle, a pretty, dark-haired girl, at the top of each one.

The letters, like their author, are a penetrating combination of reason and anger. "I will crawl over, under, around or through you and your agency," one warned Scanlon.

For weeks after Michelle died, Snow and his wife, Linda, were frozen. Snow tried going back to work at Hughes Aircraft after two weeks. He couldn't.

"I'm in a meeting, and these guys are talking about a parts shortage like it's the end of the world. People say, 'Hang in there. You'll get over it.' You never get over it."

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