December 2013 - Interactive Urinal Cakes

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Yep, that’s what it says.

Interactive urinal cakes.

Three words you never thought you’d see juxtaposed. Three words that will make it very difficult for you to live up to last month’s vow never to read my stuff again. You gotta find out what this is all about, right? What in the world could that mean?

Heck, for a lot of you, the juxtaposition of any two of those words seems problematic. “Interactive cakes” of any kind are hard to imagine,1 and “interactive urinals” seem positively frightening. And a quick survey of some female friends indicates the term “urinal cake” is not only completely alien but also somewhat disturbing to many women.

But when I explain to them that urinal cakes are the small, disc-shaped disinfectant items placed in the urinals in men’s rooms to control odor, the idea those could be in any way “interactive” puzzles them as much as it puzzled me. How could I possibly interact with a chemical hockey puck on which other men have been urinating all day?

Well, it turns out it could talk to me. If I urinated in one of a number of bars in Michigan or Colorado, the urinal cake could engage me in conversation.

This may not be news to some of my readers. I suspect there are some in my audience who have often heard disembodied voices speaking to them in the restrooms of bars.

But I am a pretty lightweight drinker; I have never had that experience.2

Certainly I’ve never had the experience of the urinal talking to me.

But in Michigan and Colorado, it’s becoming increasingly common. And no, it does not have anything to do with the extreme financial straits of Detroit or Colorado’s legalization of marijuana—although stress and the cannabial3 removal of stress were two of the explanations that first suggested themselves to me when I heard about this.

What it has to do with is the efforts of the Michigan State Police and the Colorado Department of Transportation to fight drunk driving. As part of their effort to combat driving under the influence, those agencies have installed in selected bars urinal cakes that talk.

Honest, folks, I am not making this up. If I could make up this kind of stuff, I’d be writing for Spielberg and Cameron and the like, rather than Cantil-Sakauye and Baxter and the like.

Apparently, someone noticed that a man who has had too much to drink may be unsteady on his feet.4 This might cause his stream into the urinal to waver, thereby betraying his inebriation. Inability to keep the urinal stream aimed correctly is probably directly proportional to inability to keep an automobile aimed correctly.

So in dozens of bars in Colorado, men weaving up to the urinal are challenged with a mechanical voice that says, “Keep a constant stream on this urinal cake and let’s see how drunk you are.”

And, of course, in keeping with the absolute inability of my gender to resist a challenge—especially one that involves their genitals5—they try to do just that. The urinal cake then responds to their success or failure by either cheering them as a “winner” or rating their inebriation on a scale that ranges from “tipsy” to “Uh, where are your pants?”

Of course, “tipsy” oughta be enough to keep them from driving. While I used the common shorthand of “drunk driving” above, “tipsy driving” would be a more accurate description of the violation. You are driving under the influence long before you are driving drunk, and more people need to realize that.

But apparently just reminding men of the problem has a salutary effect. Colorado reports its Labor Day DUI arrests were down more than ten percent this year, the first holiday weekend in which the talking urinal cakes were deployed.

The idea that merely reminding men of urination aiming problems can have a salutary effect will come as news to any woman who has struggled with the age-old question, “Why can’t he hit the toilet with that thing?”

I think the key here may be the challenge. The urinal cakes turn it into a contest. Maybe if there were targets painted in toilets ... or if “hitting percentages” were reported in the sports pages like batting averages. ... But I digress.

The Michigan experience has not been quite as encouraging as the Colorado one. Their approach is identical, but their urinal cake is a little more confrontational. It says, “Listen up. That’s right, I’m talking to you.6 Had a few drinks? Maybe a few too many? Then do yourself and everyone else a favor: Call a sober friend or a cab. Oh, and don’t forget to wash your hands.”

I like this approach a lot. It sounds like your high school football coach—probably the last authority figure you were really intimidated by—and reminds you of the alternatives to driving. All in all, a nice approach.7

And it not only looks out for your safety, but your hygiene as well. Kudos, Michigan State Police!

But, as I alluded to above, they’ve run into a problem in Michigan that hasn’t cropped up in Colorado. Men are stealing the urinal cakes.

That’s right. Hard as it is to imagine, men are stealing the talking urinal cakes.

I mean, I can’t surmise there is any way to do that other than to reach into the urinal, pull out the ... moistened ... cake, and put it in your pocket. That would seem to me to be an unthinkable thing to do—even if you were way beyond tipsy—unless you thought you had encountered the proverbial talking frog.

I mean, maybe we’re looking at urinal cake thefts the wrong way. Maybe the guys who steal these things are so drunk they think they’re gonna take these things home and show the wife.

“Look, honey, a urinal cake that talks. Go ahead, Cake, talk. Say something.”


“Honest, honey, it talks. It talked to me at Muldoon’s. Go ahead, Cake, show her. Talk to her.”

These are clearly people we need to get off the road and on the wagon. People drunk enough to steal the urinal cakes need to stop drinking immediately, and I suggest to you that the urinal cakes accomplish that end.

I mean, think about it. Surely the thieves didn’t put these into their pocket and go back and order another drink. No, they immediately rushed home to show the wife that they had found a miraculous freak of nature, which would certainly be able to make them rich or grant them wishes or something magical.

So even the stolen urinal cakes are getting people to stop drinking. And I’m betting the guys who bring home the inexplicably taciturn urinal cakes are enrolled in a program by their wives within twenty-four hours.

This is a great idea.8 And I think the Michigan State Police and the Colorado Department of Transportation deserve kudos for giving this a try.

I mean, it cannot have been easy. Guy walks into your office and says, “I’d like to talk to you about fighting crime by deploying talking urinal cakes,” your first instinct has to be to give him a breathalyzer exam. And when he passes that, you gotta figure involuntary commitment is the next logical step.

But somebody actually heard these people out. Somebody sat across a desk from the representative of the Acme Talking Urinal Cake Company and thought, “This guy’s right. When we arrest these people, we’re just treating the symptoms. We need to get them in the bars, before they start driving, before their driving pattern has a chance to replicate their urine stream. Crime prevention is always better than crime detection.”

And then that person had to carry the idea to his/her supervisor. Talk about taking your life in your hands. This is the career equivalent of charging a machine gun nest. “Boss, I think talking urinal cakes might be the answer ...” is not a high-percentage career advancement gambit.

Law enforcement people tend to be conservative. Theirs is a serious business and they take it seriously. You can pitch talking urinal cakes to the creative director at Hallmark Cards or a partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, knowing they expect you to come up with off-the-wall ideas occasionally.

But law enforcement brass hats do not expect that much ... creativity. It took courage to buck this idea up to the next level. I hope it’s rewarded by future success in these programs and their enactment in other states.

It would be nice to have someone to talk to in the men’s room who was concerned about my safety and hygiene.

(1) I, for example, don’t want to interact with anything I’m going to eat except by eating it. Even regular cakes should not respond in any way to being eaten.
(2) That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
(3) I don’t know if it’s a word yet, but as much as marijuana makes the news these days, an adjectival form of “cannabis” will soon be needed.
(4) I hope it didn’t take a lot of grant money to conduct the research that resulted in that conclusion.
(5) What, you thought women invented the term “pissing contest?”
(6) You can just see the guy looking around, trying to locate his interrogator at this point, can’t you?
(7) My God, I’m now evaluating and rating urinal cake spiels. My life just gets curiouser and curiouser.
(8) Said the guy who thought ESPN would be a bust and the cellphone was “much ado about nothing.”

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.