A Bumpy History of the Baby on Board Sign

IStock
IStock

From the mid to late 1980s, the most ubiquitous road sign didn’t advise you to stop, obey the speed limit, or be mindful of crossing deer. Instead, it was diamond-shaped, used a black-on-yellow color scheme, and came with a stern warning for nearby drivers: There was a baby on board.

Safety 1st

The suction-cupped alerts that stuck to a car’s rear or side windows were originally designed to notify surrounding traffic that an infant was in their midst, the idea being that drivers would either slow down or take note that a fatigued or distracted parent was operating a motor vehicle ahead of them. In the summer of 1985, barely a year after its debut, the Baby on Board sign had been affixed to more than 3 million cars, with 500,000 being sold each month.

It was a windfall for former real estate investor and Brookline, Massachusetts resident Michael Lerner, who spent $65,000 of his own money to start Safety 1st, a child-focused consumer brand that marketed everything from poison alert labels to soft faucet caps so that babies wouldn’t hurt their heads in the tub. Lerner, who had no children of his own, recalled feeling anxious as he drove his 18-month old nephew home from a family gathering in a congested traffic area; he subsequently obtained the rights to Baby on Board from two sisters, Patricia and Helen Bradley, who had seen a similar sign in Europe but didn’t know how to peddle it to prospective buyers.

Neither did retailers. Lerner spent much of his time trying to convince department stores that the signs belonged in the infant section, not their automotive display: He believed the product was a safety device, not a novelty. The claim fell on deaf ears until he met with a buyer for the now-defunct Bradlees chain. The store was making an aggressive push for child car seats and felt Lerner’s pitch fit their strategy perfectly.

Once Bradlees began carrying it, other stores like Sears and Toys "R" Us followed suit—and by 1986, the distinctive yellow signs had become as common as a spare tire.

While Lerner was profiting handsomely, he was seeing only a fraction of the car sign industry's total revenue. Once Baby on Board caught on, it became easy for companies to manufacture parody replicas: Baby Driving, Grandma on Board, Ex-Husband in Trunk, and Illiterate on Bord were all snapped up by more cynical drivers who felt the original sign was silly to suggest they'd be driving aggressively if not for the warning. At one point, the knock-offs outnumbered Lerner’s sign by five to one on roads in the New York metropolitan area.

Safety 1st

Lerner and his satirists had one thing in common: road safety experts had extreme reservations about the signs, which could potentially obstruct the driver’s view through the rear window. While some states approved them providing they were stuck to the lower half of the glass, others were more aggressive. North Carolina law insisted nothing be placed on the window; Maryland had police officers giving drivers a $30 ticket for the infraction. In 1986, the Insurance Information Institute declared the signs posed a hazard for drivers who could become distracted by trying to read them, prompting a traffic accident. They also expressed concern rescue workers could risk harm by trying to extricate a baby who may not even be on board at the time of a collision.

Lerner dismissed the phantom-baby stigma, insisting the sign was designed to be removed when the infant was absent and felt it contributed to more responsible driving. While it was impossible to discern whether it actually made a difference, the parodies certainly did: Baby Carries No Cash and other jokes helped contribute to window decal fatigue, prompting Safety 1st to focus on other products like bath seats and door signs that could tell solicitors a baby was asleep inside. In 2000, Lerner sold the company to Dorel for $38 million. In 2014, the owners estimated more than 10 million signs had been sold.

One of them was purchased by a young man named Freddy Franco. According to an April 1987 report in Florida’s News-Journal, Franco was driving on Interstate 95 when a police officer spotted the sign and pulled him over. After growing suspicious of Franco’s nervousness, the officer searched the vehicle. In addition to being in violation of a state law banning anything from rear windows, Franco also had 15 pounds of cocaine hidden in compartments. There was no baby.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Good Gnews: Remembering The Great Space Coaster

Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
YouTube

Tubby Baxter. Gary Gnu. Goriddle Gorilla. Speed Reader. For people of a certain age, these names probably tug on distant memories of a television series that blended live-action, puppetry, and animation. It was The Great Space Coaster, and it aired daily in syndication from 1981 to 1986. Earning both a Daytime Emmy and a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming, The Great Space Coaster fell somewhere in between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show—a series for kids who wanted a little more edge to their puppet performances.

Unlike most classic kid’s shows, fans have had a hard time locating footage of The Great Space Coaster. Even after five seasons and 250 episodes, no collections are available on home video. So what happened?

Get On Board

The Great Space Coaster was created by Kermit Love, who worked closely with Jim Henson on Sesame Street and created Big Bird, and Jim Martin, a master puppeteer who also collaborated with Henson. Produced by Sunbow Productions and sponsored by the Kellogg Company and toy manufacturer Hasbro, The Great Space Coaster took the same approach as Sesame Street of being educational entertainment. In fact, many of the puppeteers and writers were veterans of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. Producers met with educators to determine subjects and content that could result in a positive cognitive or personal development goal for the audience, which was intended to be children from ages 6 to 11. There would be music, comedy, and cartoons, but all of it would be working toward a lesson on everything from claustrophobia to the hazards of being a litterbug.

The premise involved three teens—Danny (Chris Gifford), Roy (Ray Stephens), and Francine (Emily Bindiger)—who hitch a ride on a space vehicle piloted by a clown named Tubby Baxter. The crew would head for an asteroid populated by a variety of characters like Goriddle Gorilla (Kevin Clash). Roy carried a monitor that played La Linea, an animated segment from Italian creator Osvaldo Cavandoli that featured a figure at odds with his animator. The kids—all of whom looked a fair bit older than their purported teens—also sang in segments with original or cover songs.

The most memorable segment might have been the newscast with Gary Gnu, a stuffy puppet broadcaster who delivered the day’s top stories with his catchphrase: “No gnews is good gnews!” Aside from Gnu, there was Speed Reader (Ken Myles), a super-fast sprinter and reader who reviewed the books he breezed through. Often, the show would also have guest stars, including Mark Hamill, boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Henry Winkler.

All of it had a slightly irreverent tone, with humor that was more biting than most other kid’s programming of the era. The circus that Tubby Baxter ran away from was run by a character named M.T. Promises. Gnu had subversive takes on his news stories. Other characters weren’t always as well-intentioned as the residents of Sesame Street.

Off We Go

The Great Space Coaster was popular among viewers and critics. In 1982, it won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming—Graphic Design and a Peabody Award in 1983. But after the show ceased production in 1986, it failed to have a second life in reruns or on video. Only one VHS tape, The Great Space Coaster Supershow, was ever released in the 1980s. And while fan sites like TheGreatSpaceCoaster.TV surfaced, it was difficult to compile a complete library of the series.

In 2012, Tanslin Media, which had acquired the rights to the show, explained why. Owing to the musical interludes, re-licensing songs would be prohibitively expensive—potentially far more than the company would make selling the program. Worse, the original episodes, which were recorded on 1-inch or 2-inch reel tapes, were in the process of degrading.

That same year, Jim Martin mounted an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to try and raise funds to begin salvaging episodes and digitizing them for preservation. That work has continued over the years, with Tanslin releasing episodes and clips online that don’t require expensive licensing agreements and fans uploading episodes from their original VHS recordings to YouTube.

There’s been no further word on digitizing efforts for the complete series, though Tanslin has reported that a future home video release isn’t out of the question. If that materializes, it’s likely Gary Gnu will be first to deliver the news.