On Thrill Rides, Safety Is Optional

Timothy Fan, 20, of Long Island, N.Y., shown in an undated photo at right, was killed in 1999 while riding the 50-mph Shockwave roller coaster, above, at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va. (By Bob Brown -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via Associated Press)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

In December 2005, 9-year-old Fatima Cervantes and her 8-year-old brother boarded a Sizzler ride at a carnival in Austin, thrilled to climb into one of the candy-colored cars on rotating arms. But shortly after their blue car started whirling, Fatima slipped beneath the lap bar and was thrown onto the platform, where a metal arm crushed her head.

Since 1997, Sizzlers have been involved in at least four other deaths and dozens of injuries in the United States. Noting similarities in several accidents, a group of 25 state inspection chiefs requested in June that the ride's manufacturer, Wisdom Industries, take immediate measures to prevent "an unacceptable level of ejection risk."

Wisdom's owner did not immediately respond, but after a 6-year-old boy in Kentucky was flung from a Sizzler and struck in the head by whirling equipment in late July, the company recommended to operators that seat belts be added to the rides. It did not require that modification, however, and does not know how many of the 200 or so Sizzler rides in the United States now include the belts.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency responsible for regulating traveling carnival rides, has not required Wisdom or any other ride manufacturer to make safety improvements in the past eight years. After a meeting last year on the Sizzler's troubled safety record, the agency asked only that ride operators pay "greater attention to safety."

The CPSC has no employee whose full-time job is to ensure the safety of such rides. The agency's 90 field investigators -- who oversee 15,000 products, work from their homes and live mostly on the East Coast -- are so overstretched that they frequently arrive at carnival accident scenes after rides have been dismantled.

As a result, critics say, supermarket shopping carts feature a more standardized child-restraint system than do amusement rides, which can travel as fast as 100 mph and, according to federal estimates, cause an average of four deaths and thousands of injuries every year.

State regulators and ride safety advocates say that this record is emblematic of wider problems at the CPSC, whose lagging efforts to keep unsafe toys and other children's products from the marketplace have created a public outcry and have brought intense congressional scrutiny. Rulemaking by the agency has decreased during the Bush administration, and its officials say that budget and staffing constraints have made the commission vulnerable to industry pressure to adopt voluntary standards, or, in the case of fixed-site amusement park rides, no federal regulation.

A House committee is scheduled this week to consider legislation introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that would beef up the CPSC's oversight of traveling carnival rides and create new authority to investigate rides at fixed theme parks, which are not regulated at the federal level. Markey calls the lack of federal oversight a "historical disgrace."

Cretia Lewis, the mother of the Kentucky boy who was injured when his lap bar popped open at a county fair, said: "It makes me sick that the taxes we pay don't go toward more safety regulations. I don't think the manufacturers understand, either. If something had happened to one of their children or grandchildren, it would be different."

But Victor Wisdom, who runs the company that manufactures the Sizzler, says that recent accidents were caused by "improper maintenance and operation," not design flaws. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions says no federal regulation is needed because "visiting an amusement park is safer than bowling, shooting pool, playing ping pong or fishing."

The Safety 'Illusion'

This past summer's amusement ride casualties included four deaths in the United States, according to news accounts. Two 4-year-olds drowned in wave pools in Wisconsin and California. A 21-year-old woman was thrown from a spinning ride in New York. And a Wisconsin teenager died after falling 50 feet from an Air Glory ride.

At Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, 13-year-old Kaitlyn Lasitter's feet were severed while she was riding the Tower of Power, a stomach-flipping thriller that draws riders up and pauses briefly before plunging at more than 50 mph. A cable snapped and wound around Kaitlyn's legs like a bullwhip. Surgeons reattached her right foot, but her left was too damaged to save. The middle-schooler has since undergone more surgery and has had nightmares.

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