It doesn't matter much to the fainthearted how safe amusement rides are - they're not riding. Nor does it matter to the lionhearted - they'll ride no matter what.
But to the pragmatic masses who fall somewhere in between, the safety of carnival and amusement rides matters a great deal. And each time tragedy strikes - as it did this month at a water slide in California - it matters a little bit more as many wonder who ensures the safety of such attractions.
Elvin Jones, 19, operates the Iron Eagle at Adventure World in Largo. One day last week, he checked the riders to make sure each one was properly fastened before he flipped the switch to start the ride.
But an unusual noise prompted him to beckon a supervisor, and they closed the Eagle to investigate. The ride, which rotates 360 degrees and spins its passengers more than 82 feet in the air, quickly reopened.
Ride operators are the first line of defense in enforcing safety. Behind them are company inspectors. Checking behind them are insurance companies' watchmen. State and local governments also conduct spot and routine inspections.
But at Adventure World, as at all permanent and temporary amusement parks and carnivals, safety also depends on riders.
On June 2, visitors to a water park in Concord, Calif., were not adhering to the rules when a water slide collapsed, killing one person and injuring 32 others. The slide collapsed after a group of high school seniors on an outing ignored warnings to slide down individually and overwhelmed the slide's superstructure, witnesses told police.
That California water park is run by Premier Parks, an Oklahoma-based corporation that is one of the world's largest theme-park companies and also owns Adventure World.
"The first thing you think about [upon hearing of the California incident] is the well-being and safety of those involved. In the industry, the No. 1 priority across the system is safety," Adventure World spokesman Thomas Hall says.
Signs are posted throughout Adventure World to explain the intensity level of the rides and park rules, including those against horseplay on rides.
If guests are suspected of breaking the rules or attempting to break them, lifeguards or amusement ride operators call security guards, Mr. Hall says.
"As a guest in the park, people must be aware of the rules and regulations and the responsibility they must employ in using the park," he says. "We don't tolerate misconduct."
The World Waterpark Association reported three deaths at water parks between 1990 and 1992. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last year estimated that 100 people died and 7,500 were injured on amusement park rides in 1995, the latest figures available.
In Virginia, the state Board of Housing and Community Development writes the laws regulating amusement rides. The rules are distributed to local jurisdictions for inspection and enforcement.
"These parks are in the business of assuring their rides are safe. They are there for the long haul and have a decent track record," Norman Crumpton, associate director of Virginia's building code office, says of the three major amusement parks in the state - Paramount's Kings Dominion in Doswell, Water Country USA near Williamsburg and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. …