Stateline Story

Theme Park Accidents Hasten Calls For Reform

Forget zero-to-sixty. Ever wanted to go zero-to-eighty in 1.8 seconds? Paramount's Kings Dominion, a 2.3 million-visitor-per-year theme park serving the Washington D.C.-Richmond, Virginia area, is building a roller coaster that will do just that.

The Hypersonic XLC, scheduled to open in 2001, is the latest thrill-seekers' dream. But last summer, King's Dominion also witnessed the worst of thrill-seekers' nightmares: the death of a young man who slipped from his shoulder restraints on a stand-up roller coaster and fell to the ground, becoming one of six fatalities in U.S. amusement parks last year.

A new analysis of ride-related hospital emergency room admissions shows a troubling upward swing in the number of injuries at the nation's theme parks. Conducted by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, the analysis has drawn attention to wide disparities in state ride inspection and safety regulations and reinvigorated stale legislation that would restore oversight of the parks to the federal government. It was farmed out to the states under President Reagan in 1981.

"Right now there's just a hodgepodge of state regulations regarding amusement parks," said CPSC spokesman Russ Rader.

"Every other manufacturer or company that deals with a consumer product is required to report injuries that occur to the federal government, but not amusement parks. So we don't know why this spike in the injuries has occurred," he said.

According to a state-by-state analysis of ride inspection regulations compiled by USA TODAY earlier this year, New Jersey is a model for amusement park safety. It requires all rides to be checked by a state-employed inspector at the onset of the park season and inspected as many as four more times throughout the year.

But as many as twelve states have no formal inspection system, leaving safety to in-house and insurance inspectors and raising the question of whether more rigorous regulations are necessary to prevent injuries and save lives as rides become faster and more complex.

"Last year was a terribly tragic summer. But it was also an anomaly, " says Susie Storey, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions ( IAAPA ). Storey says that while U.S. amusement parks attract more than than 300 million visitors each year, only two people die on average.

IAAPA officials, who represent the $9 billion a year amusement industry, note that many states on the no-regulation list have no permanent parks to inspect, and say that CPSC already has oversight of travelling fairs and carnivals. Montana, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, for example, do not have a single roller coaster among them.

The CPSC report, "Amusement Ride-Related Injuries and Deaths in the United States: 1987-1999," estimated a total of 10,380 ride-related injuries at fixed and travelling sites last year, up nearly 11 percent from 1998. But one data extrapolation suggested that injuries at permanent amusement parks had nearly doubled since 1996.

That conclusion has raised eyebrows around the industry. "We've always looked to that report as the authority on injuries, but not after this year," Storey said.

Doubters include many of the inspectors themselves. Jim Barber, an insurance contract inspector and former chief of the New York state inspection program who now serves as the president of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officers , says the report and its methods are "flawed."

"I certainly would question a dramatic rise in the incidents they are reporting, compared to what I've seen personally in my travels around the Northeast. I haven't seen any great increase in accidents that have been reported in the newspapers, on the television, or on the radio," Barber said.

Among the problems critics cite is the inclusion of figures from one emergency room that reported a significantly higher number of ride-related injuries and a speedier rate of increase than any other facility included in the sample. The report anticipates this criticism.

"We must be very careful when we report numbers like this. And our statisticians were satisfied that what we're seeing at that hospital reflects what's going on nationwide," Rader said.

IAAPA defends the industry's safety record as beyond reproach. IAAPA president John Graff has said that amusement rides pose a lower risk of injury than fishing, biking or even playing billiards.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), sponsor of the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act , calls IAAPA's stance "appalling."

"As long as the industry fights this fundamental safety measure, our children are at unnecessary but very real risk of serious injury every time they step onto an amusement park ride," he said in a statement on the CPSC data."We would never oppose anything that would improve our safety record," Storey says.

Would tighter monitoring significantly reduce injuries or eliminate fatalities? Kathy Fackler, who launched a watchdog Web site, www.saferparks.org , after her 5-year old son was severely injured at Disneyland in 1998, believes that "well-designed regulation" can be especially effective against repeat accidents.

"Without clear, inclusive injury data, we'll never understand what's causing the injuries or how to prevent them. As long as business is left in charge of safety issues, economic factors will determine which injuries are acceptable and which aren't," Fackler said.

Barber, an advocate of beefed-up and better-funded state regulatory programs, agrees to a point. "The more eyes looking at these rides, the better off we all are," he said.

But Barber said that, in its current form, the Markey bill merely repeats work already done by other agencies.

After the week of fatal accidents last August, two of which occurred at Paramount parks, the company closed seven rides at its five parks in the U.S. and Canada while private and public officials completed investigations.

The King's Dominion ride had passed two routine inspections by the Hanover County Building Inspections Office in 1999, most recently in July, one month before the accident. The Hanover County Sheriff's Office concluded that the deceased man, Timothy Fan, 20, of Long Island City, N.Y., had "slipped out of the restraints in an effort to maximize the thrill of the ride," according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch .

CPSC chairwoman Ann Brown has said that if Congress returned ride inspection authority to the agency, she would welcome it, Rader said.

"This is a situation where amusement rides are supposed to give the illusion of danger and not actually put people in danger. But we've got a strong upward surge of injuries that shows that there is something going on. We don't know what that is," he said.