Year by year, Christmas is becoming safer. Home safety specialists say they realize even obvious hazards are easy to forget about in the excitement of the holiday season. Yet they note encouraging progress -- dangerous toys and fires are slowly becoming things of Christmas past.
The reasons are many: Parents watching out for the safety of children's Christmas toys, homeowners and apartment and industry standard setters who keep dangerous items out of American homes.
Edward M. Swartz, a Boston Attorney -- and, to the toy industry, a gadfly of the toy shelves -- recently issued his eighth annual list of the "10 worst toys" of the year.
His mission is to arouse the skepticism of parents. "Don't assume a toy is necessarily safe," he says, "just because it's a toy."
The efforts of Mr. Swartz and others concerned with toy safety are beginning to look like a success story. While he still trumpets the flaws in the toy industry, he admits that toy hazards have been whittled down to a sliver of what they were 10 years ago.
The National Safety Council (NSC) agrees. An official says that if injuries from toys were common in the 1960s, "the bulk of the toys made now are relatively safe," providing they are used by children in the age group intended by the manufacturer.
In the safety business, progress comes slowly -- by picking out dangerous products and changing public attitudes. "We've done the easy things," says an NSC spokesman. An immense challenge is in educating the people's attitudes -- "the whore business of changing human behavior."
Much progress has been made, too, at battling the major home safety issue at Christmas -- fire. More artificial trees over the years have been made nonflammable or flame resistant. Christmas lights, tree ornaments, and other decorations now generally comply with both voluntary and mandatory federal government requirements.
Overall, incidents caused by decorative lights -- one of the few aspects of Christmas safety actually measured -- have dropped by about 20 percent a year, according to figures compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
How does the buyer know what's safe? NSC experts recommend looking for the "UL" label of the Underwriter's Laboratories Inc. But they warn to look carefully. The NSC has recently come across counterfeit UL marks on imported Christmas decorations. They say to make sure to use outdoor lights only outdoors.
But it's the Christmas tree that deserves the most care. The key, experts advise, is not to let it dry out. A fresh-cut tree is better than a drier one. The trunk should be sawed two inches from the botton before the tree is set up to help it absorb more water from the basin part of its stand. After that, the base should always be kept in water.
Once up, the tree should not be placed too near a heat source or candles with open flames. Nor should tree lights be left burning overnight; overheating is the major cause of fires involving Christmas lights, and a dry tree can be perfect tinder.
Artificial trees need to be treated with caution, too. Electric lights should never be strung on a metallic tree, since such trees conduct electricity. Spotlights should be used instead. With other types of artificial trees, an NSC official cautions, the potential buyer should make certain they have been tested for flammability.
The Underwriter's Laboratories warn against burning either evergreens or wrapping paper in the fireplace. Both burn in a way that could cause flash fires.
A growing concern over the four-day Christmas weekend is highway accidents. Casualties last Christmas weekend amounted to twice what they were over the more-publicized NEw Year's weekend and were 50 percent higher than in 1978.
Part of the problem is laid to a greater mix of small and large cars on the roads in the past year or two. But this is an incomplete explanation, the NSC feels. Drunk driving also plays a part -- since drivers who have been drinking at Christmastime may not as prepared to handle the after- affects as their New Year's Eve counterparts.