While the number of injuries on all kinds of rides has climbed steadily over the past decade nationwide, deaths and serious injuries are relatively rare. But it only takes one catastrophic accident to change a life. Kathy Fackler’s son lost part of his foot on a roller coaster in California. Two years later, she founded the advocacy organization Safer Parks.
“And in the aftermath of the accident I learned how little government oversight there was of serious accidents in major theme parks,” Fackler says.
The federal Consumer Products Safety Commission used to regulate all amusement parks—from Disneyland to traveling fairs. But in 1981, the amusement park industry lobbied Congress to change that. The change removed so-called “fixed site” parks from the CPSC’s jurisdiction and left it to regulate only traveling parks. Again, Kathy Fackler.
“So it was a couple lines in a thousand page bill that no one really saw before they voted on it. And it deregulated an entire industry in one fell swoop,” says Fackler.
Since then, most—but not all—states have established their own programs to regulate and inspect rides. And Fackler says state inspectors, as well as the industry, work hard to keep rides safe. But she says reinstating federal oversight would allow states to tap federal resources like engineers and scientists for major accident investigations. Kentucky Department of Agriculture spokesman Bill Clary says federal oversight could potentially improve safety.
“We would be in favor of federal jurisdiction if the federal government’s rules were at least as strict as ours or stricter,” says Clary.
The department’s investigation of last year’s accident at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom—when a worn out cable on the Tower of Power ride snapped and severed off a teenager’s feet—found that park operators were using an outdated maintenance manual for the ride. Inspectors fined the park $1000 for failing to maintain the ride. Clary says those fines will now be higher. And the state legislatures has since passed new park safety laws.
“The amusement ride operators themselves have to conduct a daily inspection of every ride, and they have to maintain the records of those inspections for us. Under the law that existed before this year, that wasn’t necessarily the case.”
Clary says legislators also gave the department about $200,000 dollars to hire more inspectors. But it also cut their operating budget by $3 million dollars. Clary says 20 years ago, two dozen inspectors looked over a few hundred rides. Today, there are 8 full time inspectors performing thousands of checks. He says they do manage to inspect every ride once a year. But they’d like to do more.
“What we would like to be able to do is do more re-inspections because things change over time,” Clary says.
The amusement park industry—from park operators to ride manufacturers—follows many safety guidelines of its own. Many members have adopted the international safety and design standards. And many ride inspectors—from state employees to insurance company consultants—voluntarily seek certification and ongoing training. And some industry members say that’s plenty. The president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions insists this $25 billion dollar industry can keep patrons safe without federal intervention.