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How Safe is That Roller Coaster? Amusement Park Regulation Debated

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Last week, roller-coaster patron Rosy Esparza fell to her death on Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas. Many are speculating over what caused this accident. Some sources agree that before the ride took off, Esparza told a park employee her lap bar had not locked into place. This could have been a machine malfunction, but others are saying it might have to been related to the victim’s weight. Texas Giant is typically suited for people at a maximum of 180 pounds, but employees do not discourage larger guests from riding.

While the causes of this horrible accident are being researched, the rest of us are left wondering how common this type of incident is. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), about 297 million people visit an estimated 400 amusement fixed-ride parks across the United States every year.

The chances of serious injury (defined by the IAAPA as requiring overnight hospitalization for treatment) on a ride are about 1 in 24 million. The IAAPA does not keep track of the annual number of fixed-ride amusement park fatalities. However, they estimate an average of two to three patrons are fatally injured each year.

These numbers include major, fixed-ride parks. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) analyzes data on all types of amusement attractions, which includes mobile rides, fixed rides, inflatables like moon bounces, rides at malls, and waterslides. It should not be surprising that when all of these venues are included, the numbers rise dramatically.

According to CPSC estimates, the total number of amusement attraction-related injuries was 37,154. About 5,139 of those riders, jumpers, and sliders were between the ages of 0 and 4. While that might sound high, 17,189 injuries were of those between the ages of 5 and 14. 6,536 of those injured were between the ages of 15 and 24, and 8,097 were between 25 and 64, while only 193 were 65 or over. Of these incidents, about 21 percent occurred on fixed rides, while 16 percent were on mobile rides, and 20 percent were on inflatable attractions.

Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, the manufacturer of Texas Giant, will investigate the cause of Esparza’s death along with Six Flags. But will any federal organizations be checking to see if the ride followed regulations or underwent continual maintenance checks? No. Because there are no organizations set up to do this in Texas, nor in 16 other states in the U.S. Some states do have inspection safety regulators, but there is not an organization at the national level.

Instead, it is standard for the theme park and ride manufacturer to determine the cause of the incident, as in this particular case. Theme parks are required to analyze their own level of inspection and maintenance leading up to and including the incident.

For example, in 2007 a 13-year-old girl’s feet were severed by a cable on the Superman Tower of Power at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom. While the car was moving upward, a side cable snapped and wrapped around the necks of a few girls, and around the feet of one. The other girls were able to move the cable away from their necks, but when the ride dropped, it wrapped around the 13-year-old girl’s feet.

After the incident, the park’s ride-maintenance manager gave a sworn statement mentioning that the ride technicians had not followed instructions as they were laid out by the ride’s manufacturer. After an investigation, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture released a report in May 2008 finding that the problem had been due to “cable fatigue.” The report stated that if the ride technicians had performed inspections as they were laid out in the maintenance manual, the fatigue would have been noticeable.

Right now, the debate is centered around whether or not there should be regulation of amusement parks nationwide. Previously, the  Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulated amusement parks. But in 1981, U.S. Congress decided fixed-site amusement park rides were not the same as household products, as they were purchased by individual facilities, not consumers.

This ruling stripped the CPSC of its ability to regulate amusement rides, particularly since it would require doubling the staff and budget of the agency. Instead, it was agreed that amusement parks would report their incidents to state and local governments and utilize government inspectors to ensure their park’s safety.

In 1999, U.S. Representative Edward Markey first introduced the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act, which pushed for the  CPSC to have jurisdiction over the fixed-ride amusement park industry. The act also mentioned establishing G-force limits on rides, but the bill did not pass.

Many argued against the necessity of federal regulation and thought Markey was exaggerating the danger of amusement park rides. But shortly thereafter, a man named Jim Prager wrote a letter to the Congressman’s office stating the following:

“I am a former senior executive, board member and stockholder in the amusement park industry and a former board member of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. But, because in my opinion the industry does not adequately protect children—its principal customers—against the risk of its ride attractions, I now support CPSC regulation of amusement park rides. Amusement park rides are often haphazardly conceived and designed and then engineered and manufactured by small firms with limited resources in states and in countries other than the communities where the rides are installed…The cost-cutting of the last 25 years has reduced the industry capacity for safety.”

If you want to stay up to date on amusement park incidents, check out Ride, which has videos and articles. The Amusement Safety Organization also has up-to-date information about occurrences at amusement parks across the country.

By Stephanie Ervin for