We’ve all heard them: Those baby-on-board signs were invented after a baby died; paste stick-figure families on your minivan and your real family will be in danger; blindly follow your GPS and you will die. Our most persistent rumours, while headline grabbing, aren’t always what they seem.
Those baby on board signs? They’ve been around since a company called Safety 1st started manufacturing them in 1984. There have been many incarnations of how they came to be, but most involve the grisly death of a child. Somewhere in Canada/Germany/U.S., the story goes, first responders weren’t aware that an infant was in a crashed vehicle. The infant was thrown clear and overlooked in a snow bank/missed in foliage/found frozen under a seat, depending on the source. The signs were to let those coming upon a crash site know to look for a child, and parents would not display the sign if babies weren’t actually on board.
Except, there was never a dead child. Safety 1st made all kinds of baby accessories, but it was those ubiquitous yellow signs that made history. They sold 10,000 signs the first month; within nine months that figure climbed to 500,000. They helped push Safety 1st to become a company that would eventually crack sales of $158-million and be bought out by the segment giant, Dorel. The knockoffs may have started just a year later, but those signs launched an impressive ship.
The company thought they would encourage those seeing the sign to drive more carefully; mostly, they inspired signs with responses like “It’s your kid, you be careful” and “No baby on board, feel free to drive into me.” Ironically, it was those very parents thinking they were protecting their kids who screwed up the usefulness of the signs, by leaving them posted whether a child was in the car or not. Perhaps a clue for first responders but hardly a reliable one; sometimes the “baby” in question was 10.
The arrival of stick figure families, seemingly standard equipment on minivans everywhere, launched a new accessory to hate. First introduced on a large scale by Woodland Manufacturing in Boise, Idaho, in 2006, the proud declarations of fertility and how many extracurricular activities you could afford for your kids bloomed overnight. An Australian couple launched My Family (TM) at the same time. Both claim to be first in a field now overrun with copycats. Regardless, you can’t escape the variations. The spinoffs (zombie families, a woman with eight cats, families abducted by aliens) proved wittier than the originals. You can get custom work done at prices ranging from $4 a sticker to $4 a figure, and My Family has recently introduced a Canadian addition: Chardonnay Mom.
They’d be pretty innocuous except for the required rumour that started last year. News organizations – real ones – started reporting those stickers could be setting you up for a home invasion or a kidnapping. A rescue group in Ohio published a warning on Facebook that tugged apart all the information contained on your rear windshield. From having a dog too small to attack, a kid at football practice and Dad away at war, it became the greatest stretch of thinking up ways to make parents more paranoid. It’s not up there with Paul is dead or Oswald didn’t act alone, but any “Bad People” stalking stick figure families are probably more Home Alone bandits than criminal masterminds.
Unfortunately, navigational systems – GPS – leading people to their deaths is no myth. Reports from around the world confirm that the systems are not failsafe, and drivers inexperienced in either the system’s operation or their surroundings – and frequently both – have paid with their lives.
Just two weeks ago a Chicago woman, Zohra Hussain, died when her husband, while following GPS instructions, attempted to cross a bridge that had been closed since 2009. Hussain died of burns after the subsequent 11 metre plunge. Boat launches and bridge abutments are frequent sites of bad directions headlines; in 2011 three women in Washington State ended up in a submerged SUV when they blindly followed the GPS in their rental. They escaped injury.
In 2012, three Japanese tourists in Australia had to abandon the car they were driving on a road that got progressively muddier; the GPS hadn’t warned them the road would be under water at high tide, and they scrambled to get out as it floated away. A German truck driver got stuck in a Swiss cherry tree in 2007. He followed the voice, he said.
Less random and occurring with more frequency in California is something rangers in Death Valley National Park have called Death by GPS.
In 2009, Alicia Sanchez was found near death by a ranger, her young son dead in her Jeep. Lost for five days in the unforgiving temperatures that can climb over 46 degrees Celsius in summer months, she’d followed GPS instructions off established roads and deeper into uncharted territory. While the national park has been posting more warnings for visitors, including that cellphone reception is extremely limited, many satellite systems are still recognizing bypasses that have been closed for decades as roads and many drivers are still blindly following their technology into trouble.
Navigational systems are a tool. Tools are only as good as the people using them, and many of the sad accounts you hear about feature people ignoring barricades and other physical warnings. From people plucked from the edge of cliffs to those trapped by rising seas, paying more attention to the view out their windshield than a screen on their dash should have been warning enough. Those tragedies aren’t rumours.
Oh, and one rumour that needs to be stomped out forever: the Chevy Nova was never misnamed. Nova does not translate into “doesn’t go” in Spanish, and the car did well in the Spanish language countries where it was sold.