When SawStop burst on the scene some years ago with its amazing hot dog demonstrations of its flesh-sensing table saw safety technology, it drew plenty of crowds at the trade shows. But manufacturers didn’t rush to license the new technology developed by Stephen Gass, a patent attorney, physicist and amateur woodworker. Manufacturers were concerned about the cost of the device, both for the manufacturer and for the consumer, since it is a single-use technology and has to be replaced after it deploys. Privately, some of them said they were also worried about liability if someone were injured despite the device or if it deployed unexpectedly.
So, Gass became a manufacturer himself, developing a line of table saws that incorporated the SawStop blade-braking system. The saws have sold well, showing up in thousands of shops, large and small across the country despite the saws costing more than competitors’ comparable models without the patented safety system. But that wasn’t good enough for Gass. He embarked on efforts to convince the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to require the technology, and more recently, he lobbied strenuously for legislation in California that would effectively ban the sale of any saw without flesh-sensing technology. Since his patented system is currently the only one that meets the standards, the bill, now headed for passage, would effectively give Gass a monopoly on table saw sales in the state.
Full disclosure: I once came close to cutting off my left thumb in a table saw accident. After I tested the SawStop saw in my own shop, I didn’t hesitate to buy it. I love the saw, and the only time the blade brake has activated is when I did the hot dog test myself to show how it works (www.cabinetmakerfdm.com/5583.html). Also, SawStop has been a regular advertiser in this magazine.
But all that said, it makes me just a little squeamish when a manufacturer spends thousands of dollars lobbying government organizations to have his product required by law. I have no doubt that expanded use of SawStop-equipped saws would prevent more serious injuries from accidents, but is it the role of government to order people to buy one product over another? Let individuals and the market vote with their checkbooks. Many of them, like me, have decided the safety technology is worth the price, but many more have not. Woodworkers should be free to choose without legislative interference.
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