Magazine article Insight on the News

Riding without a Safety Net

Magazine article Insight on the News

Riding without a Safety Net

Article excerpt

As amusement parks provide `killer thrills' with taller and faster rides, safety standards are left largely to individual states, some of which don't require rides to be inspected.

As lap bars click into place on amusement-park rides across the country, millions of children put their little bodies into giant pieces of machinery that hurl them, twirl them and drop them from the sky -- all in the name of a thrill. And adults can't resist, either.

Thoughts of safety hardly cast a shadow on the smiles and shrill screams from these riders as they sit in massive metal contraptions that rumble over twisting tracks. According to Consumer Alert, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, government estimates place the odds of getting seriously injured on an amusement-park ride at one in 25 million. The odds of dying are one in 450 million. And, after all, surely someone out there is looking out after those pesky little safety issues. Right?

But the truth is that whether the ride is at Walt Disney World or at a traveling carnival that folds its' tents ,and vanishes as quickly as the thrill, the level of safety regulation or inspection applied -- if any at all -- depends on the state where the ride is located, as well as the site it's located at. The standards vary considerably, with limited national reporting of what injuries actually occur.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has the authority to investigate accidents on rides at mobile sites. But inspection is another matter; the CPSC does not regularly inspect rides. Since 1981, when Congress changed the law, the CPSC's jurisdiction has stopped short at the gates of nonmobile or fixed-site parks, such as Disney World or Six Flags America. Proponents say Congress changed the law to eliminate redundancy, while opponents say the industry lobbied successfully simply to get the government off its back.

Either way, these issues now are left up to individual states and local communities, says Marthena Cowart, director of information and public affairs for the CPSC. "We're a little agency," she tells Insight. The agency regulates consumer products. While it can regulate small carnival rides that travel from town to town, it cannot set foot in an amusement park for the purpose of regulating a ride that is fixed to the site, such as a roller coaster.

Last year, the agency supported efforts to regain jurisdiction of fixed-site amusement parks. Cowart could not say what portion of the agency's budget is spent on amusement-ride safety, but says any additional funding acquired with new responsibilities certainly would help "float the whole boat."

According to Cowart, in overseeing movable carnival rides, the CPSC supports the findings of state inspectors who make decisions about safety issues. She says the agency also serves as an information clearinghouse on reported incidents nationally. But reporting requirements vary from state to state. Some states make injury data available to the public and some do not. CPSC investigators may travel to amusement sites in the case of mobile rides only to investigate reports. But, Cowart says, they rarely do. It generally is left up to the states to look into.

Despite federal oversight, the CPSC reports that seven states (Alabama, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Missouri) have no state regulations and do not require that rides be inspected for safety. Six other states (Arizona, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas) have insurance-company or other private inspections but do not require inspections by state or local regulators.

In Florida, where inspections of mobile rides are required each time one is set up, large fixed-site amusement parks with more than 1,000 employees are exempt from state inspections. These parks are self-regulated. Florida statutes do not even require the reporting of incidents unless someone is taken to a hospital, according to Izzy Rommes, bureau chief of the Bureau of Fairs and Expositions for Florida's Department of Agriculture, which oversees amusement-ride safety issues in the state. …

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