Helping parents sort through 150,000 toys for Christmas

They range from an electric kiddie car with no brakes and a toy piano for dolls to a couple of plastic worms you pitch against the wall and watch wriggle down.

These are a few of the toys singled out by consumer advocates this Christmas as potentially dangerous, overpriced, or just plain dumb.

The consumer affairs committee of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), among its various toy shelf citations, also picked the best toy of the year: Gridlock Hi-Q Puzzle by Gabriel. Meanwhile, Boston lawyer Edward Swartz, a specialist in product liability, published his 10th annual list of the 10 most dangerous toys in the country.

Taken together with some general safety guidelines, these toy- shelf checklists can help parents select safe and useful playthings for under the tree.

On the whole, there are fewer dangerous toys on the market today than in the past, says Ann Brown, ADA's chairperson. Toy manufacturers, she says, have become more careful about what rolls off their assembly lines and are designing more safety features into toys.

The items requiring special caution, warns Ms. Brown, are toy chests without safety hinges. Falling lids have long been recognized as a hazard to small children. The federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has formulated a regulation requiring manufacturers to use no-slam hinges, but it won't take effect until early 1983.

In the meantime, Ms. Brown says some hazardous toy chests are still being sold in stores. The CPSC recommends that if you buy or already own an unhinged toy chest you install the hinges yourself.

The ADA report also identifies some of this year's hottest toy trends. Military toys, for instance - including a scaled-down version of G.I. Joe - are back in fashion.

And following in the wake of the highly popular Strawberry Shortcake doll introduced three years ago, some toymakers are figuring that if it smells, it sells. There's even a peppermint-scented Hula Hoop being sold this year. However , the Jelly Belly doll by Ideal, which carries a heavy scent of grape jelly, was banished to ADA's ''trashbox'' list, because of its poor quality and overpowering smell.

Here are some of the things experts agree a careful toy buyer should remember before plunking down any money:

* Ask to see toys in the store before you buy. This lets you check for yourself if the toy is sturdy and free from any potential safety hazards such as sharp edges.

* If you can, stick with basic toys, the ones that have been around for a few years and have a proven record for safety and durability. Experts point out that ''hot toys'' are also usually cheaper a year later.

* Avoid toys that shoot projectiles, such as dart guns and missile launchers, and cap guns that can make excessively loud noises.

* Consider the abilities of the child who will receive the toy. Is it appropriate? Also, will it likely get into the hands of younger brothers or sisters?

The age guidelines printed on boxes are meant to give a rough idea of the children the toy was designed to be used by. But it's well to remember, say experts, that not all children mature at the same rate.

Gauging whether toys are getting safer from year to year has become the hottest point of contention between consumer advocates and the toy industry.

''There's a general upward trend in toy safety, certainly, compared to 10 years ago,'' says Terri Rogers, the CPSC's project manager for children's and recreational products. Again this year, the CPSC, together with representatives of the toy industry, announced a holiday campaign aimed at helping parents choose safe toys.

Manufacturers contend that most of the industry operates under a set of voluntary guidelines, plus a lengthening list of mandatory rules established in Washington. For instance, federal law requires a ''pull test'' to assure teddy bear noses can't be yanked off and prohibits the use of small parts in toys for children under age three.

In the last four years, the CPSC ordered the recall of 161 different toys because of potential safety hazards such as the use of lead-based paint and pieces of metal found in stuffed animal filling.

The commission admits, however, that with more than 150,000 different toys on the market, put out by more than 800 companies, it can't begin to test them all.

As a result, the bulk of responsibility for seeing that toys are safe falls in the lap of parents, says Boston attorney Swartz.

''In terms of potential hazards, this is the worst season I've seen in the last five years,'' he says. ''Parents have to be very careful.'' Heading up his selection of 10 most dangerous toys is a playpen ''gym.''

A spokesman for Fisher-Price, the maker of that toy, says the company has changed the age recommendation on the gym and put a warning on the box telling parents that children old enough to push up may become entangled in it. Swartz argues the toy ought to be banned from the market.

''Safety is not just common sense,'' he says, adding that parents - and anyone else who buys toys for children - need to make an effort to learn how to disguish a safe toy from one that is not.

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