Lawn darts, or Jarts, were all the rage in the 1980s. With a few Jarts, a few friends, and a few beers, American backyard-barbecue-goers would lay down small plastic hoops as targets and play a game not entirely unlike horseshoes. Each player would toss the darts into the air, attempting to arc them into the opposite ring. While the darts, which had a metal spike and plastic fins on the sides for flight stability, were not especially sharp, they were weighted. They picked up enough speed to come sailing down with a satisfying thunk and stick in the ground. Landing a bulls-eye in the hoop would net a player three points, and the closest non-bullseye landings would get a point.
David Snow, an aerospace engineer from Riverside, California, wasn’t even looking for lawn darts when he went shopping for party games in April 1987. He wanted a volleyball set, but all the department store had was volleyball in a combo pack with two other games. Whatever, he decided. He’d buy it, set up the volleyball net and leave the rest in the box in the garage.
His plan didn’t bear out. One Sunday afternoon soon after, his nine-year-old son and some of his neighborhood friends found the Jarts and began tossing them around in Snow’s backyard. One kid tossed his Jart too far and too high, sailing it over the backyard fence and into the front yard, where Snow’s daughter, seven-year-old Michelle, was playing with her dolls. The Jart came down right on her and, with what researchers estimate as 23,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, penetrated her skull. She collapsed, was rushed to the hospital, and was pronounced clinically dead three days later.
For weeks after, the Snows were overcome with grief. When David returned to work at Hughes Aircraft, he had a hard time adjusting. He sat in meetings listening to his co-workers talk about work things. Parts shortages. Budgets. Personnel issues. None of it seemed the least bit important anymore. His sadness gave way to anger, and he began a crusade. "I want to get these damned darts," he told The Los Angeles Times at the time. "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 going to get them off the market. Whatever it takes."
He began to research Jarts and discovered that, for years, they had been banned from sale in the U.S. because of several injuries they’d caused to children. Jart manufacturers and distributors had challenged the ban in court, though, and won a compromise: a regulation stating that lawn darts could made and sold provided they were marketed only as a game for adults. A warning label had to be placed on each package alerting consumers to the danger they posed, and the darts couldn’t be merchandised in toy departments or sold in toy stores.
To Snow, Michelle’s death proved that the regulation didn’t protect kids. It didn't matter that they were sold as an adult game; if Jarts were in a home and children were allowed to play with them or could still get access to them, he thought, accidents would happen. He wanted the ban back in place and began lobbying public officials with phone calls and letters telling his story.
When Snow brought his complaints to the the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), they told him that their injury clearinghouse, which makes national estimates of injuries caused by products based on a sampling of hospital emergency room reports from around the country, only knew of some two dozen injuries from lawn darts. A complete ban couldn’t be justified by that. Snow asked them to check their stats again.
By the Numbers
The commission, which had already come under fire from parents and consumer groups for their lax regulation and high-profile injuries from ATVs and other products, went along with his suggestion. During their new investigation, they separated lawn dart injuries from all dart-related injuries for the first time, and found that most Jart injuries had been lost in their figures. Over a period of eight years, lawn darts had sent 6,100 people to the emergency room. 81% of those cases involved children 15 or younger, and half of those were 10 or younger. The majority of injuries were to the head, face, eyes or ears, and many had led to permanent injury or disability.
When the commission collected 21 different lawn dart sets from 14 manufacturers, they also found that most of them weren’t complying with the warning requirements. A survey of 53 retailers likewise found that many weren’t following the regulation, and in a third of the stores, lawn darts were displayed in toy departments or with toys and sporting equipment intended for kids. The commission met with lawn dart makers and distributors and struck a new agreement on improved labeling and retail practices. The commission published a new safety warning for lawn darts and scheduled a vote on an outright ban for later in the year.
The week of the vote, Snow went back to Washington, D.C. to lobby the commission and get press for his cause. He gave interviews to consumer reporters from TV stations and newspapers. He met with President Reagan's assistant for consumer affairs. Finally, he had meetings with each of the three consumer product safety commissioners. By the time they voted, Snow felt confident he had at least two of the three commissioners on his side.
He was right. As an 11-year-old girl in Tennessee lay in a coma from a lawn dart injury earlier that week, the commission voted 2-1 in favor of a ban. Lawn darts were removed from stores the week before Christmas in 1988 and banned from further sale. The ban did not, however, include a recall of darts that had already been purchased, and the commission sent out a press release pleading for the public to destroy their darts or keep them out of the hands of kids.
Canada followed with their own similar ban, and today, fully assembled individual lawn darts, sets, and kits are banned from sale in, or entry into, both countries. If you try to list Jarts on eBay, they’ll pull your auction, but it’s still possible to buy and sell them at flea markets and yard sales, out from under the eye of the CPSC. It’s also okay to buy and sell replacement parts to repair damaged lawn darts purchased before the ban.
Despite the CPSC’s warnings to purge them and the possibility of puncturing someone’s skull, some folks still pull their old Jart sets out summer after summer. I vaguely remember their presence at family parties when I was a kid, and settling for a Jart game at a college barbecue when we couldn’t find sand on short notice to build a horseshoe pit. There’s even an underground Jarts tournament based in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, chronicled in the book Sports from Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition.