United States

How Safe Are Amusement Park Rides?

Some in the industry are calling for stricter federal regulation of the rides.

A ride malfunction at the Ohio State Fair that left one dead and seven injured has thrill seekers across the country questioning the safety of amusement park rides.

“I just don’t think I’ll ever ride a ride again,” Kaylie Bellomy, who was next in line, told WMCH Columbus.

A lack of comprehensive data on ride-related accidents makes it difficult to determine how risky the attractions are. Some in the industry are calling for stricter federal regulation of the rides.

One study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, estimated that 92,885 children sought emergency room treatment for injuries from rides between 2000 and 2010, approximately 4,400 per year. The study did not include deaths or injuries among adults.

Kathy Fackler, founder of amusement park safety organization Saferparks, said that insufficient data is a result of a piecemeal regulatory system.

“Carnival rides like this one, anything that travels from place to place, is subject to oversight from the Consumer Product Safety Commission," she said of the Ohio State Fair ride. "Fixed site rides at amusement parks like Six Flags are exempt from federal oversight. Some states and some local governments have instituted safety regulations but that varies across the board.”

Fragmented regulation was not always the case. When amusement park rides first appeared in the United States they fell entirely under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The rules were changed in 1981 because of pressure from industry leaders, said amusement park safety consultant Ken Martin. Under the current regulatory system, rides in some states are not subject to government inspections. 

In 2016 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was killed on the Verrückt water raft ride at Schlitterbarn waterpark in Kansas City, Kansas. Verrückt had not been inspected since its grand opening in 2014. The Kansas Legislature has since tightened regulations of amusement park rides. 

In Ohio 18-year-old Tyler Jarrell was killed Wednesday when a row of seats detached from a spinning pendulum ride called the Fire Ball.

Ohio's chief inspector of amusement ride safety, Michael Vartorella, told the AP that the Fire Ball was inspected three or four times before the fair opened. 

Even when a ride has been properly tested, Martin said accidents can still occur, especially if structural issues are not identified during the building phase. 

“You had all those people look at this ride and they didn’t find any defects," Martin said. "That alone tells me there was some type of catastrophic failure that has previously been undetected."

Industry consensus standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials help to ensure that amusement parks take safety precautions but, Martin said he believes these optional guidelines do not go far enough.

“There’s one thing that’s missing from the standards right now and that’s the fact that they have no bite," he said. “There’s nothing in the regulations to really make people comply.”

To protect park-goers and ensure that ride owners and manufacturers are held accountable for malfunctions, some are calling on the federal government to regain wider oversight of the industry.

“We are calling for a national injury reporting system for all mobile and fixed site rides that would allow for better surveillance and more consistent enforcement of standards,” said Tracy Mehan, a researcher from the Center for Injury Research and Policy.

Until changes are made on the federal level, Mehan said it would be up to riders to use common sense in order to minimize potential risks.

“Trust your instincts,” she said. “Before you get on a ride take a good look at the ride and all the equipment. If you don’t feel comfortable or you don’t feel like it will be safe, pick another activity.”

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