Theme Park Regulation Effort Crippled

By Elizabeth Williamson and Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007

The culmination of Rep. Edward J. Markey's eight-year quest to fix what he calls a "historic disgrace" continues to be a roller-coaster ride that, this week, seems headed downhill.

Markey (D-Mass.) has been pushing the House Energy and Commerce Committee to adopt an amendment to a Consumer Product Safety Commission bill that would require the nation's amusement parks to submit to federal regulation for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Late yesterday, the committee postponed a meeting scheduled for this morning, during which the bill was to have been finalized. A new date has yet to be announced, but industry lobbyists said it could be Tuesday. The postponement, committee staffers say, is necessary to accommodate floor action on the House energy bill.

The delay has given the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions time to continue lobbying against Markey's effort. While the lobbyists work the phones, Markey, who is heavily involved in the energy bill effort and is hobbled by a basketball injury, appeared to be struggling to catch up yesterday.

Markey did not attend an Energy and Commerce Committee meeting late yesterday on the CPSC bill's final form. "It's a busy day here. He's one of the speaker's point people on energy legislation and was pulled into another meeting," spokeswoman Jennifer Schafer said.

The lobbyists were not similarly distracted.

Back in 1981, amusement parks persuaded Congress to exempt "Big Theme," as activists call the companies, from federal oversight. As a result, the nation's largest amusement parks have been monitored for the past quarter-century mostly by overextended state inspectors whose main work includes checking gas pumps and elevators.

There are about four deaths a year on U.S. amusement rides, more than are linked to lead paint in toys.

Late Tuesday, Charles Bray, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), sent an e-mail to The Washington Post to say that the group believes CPSC oversight of the industry would be costly and ineffective. He was responding to a Post article on the dangers posed by the current regulatory system.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the IAAPA had contacted her office, too. "I've really been focusing on . . . what we can do to get lead out of the toys, and what we can do to get adequate funding for personnel, and that's been the chairman's main focus as well," she said, referring to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich).

"I'm really going to have to talk to Congressman Markey to find out how his amendment or other amendments that relate to specific industries or products are going to impact the entire bill. I want to be sure that we have enough resources."

Walt Disney Co. -- whose Walt Disney World Resort, the world's largest theme park, is allowed to police itself and to withhold information on all but the most serious injuries -- has been disputing Markey's assertion that nearly half the states do not conduct ride accident investigations.

Markey's nemesis on this issue, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), contends, along with the industry, that amusement rides cause fewer injuries than fishing.

Stearns bases his position on the only statistics available -- the industry's own. He agrees that an independent, comprehensive source of ride injury statistics would be helpful to consumers.

"Obviously you want to find out fatal accidents, you want to see accidents that go from state to state, [and] if there's a similarity you can put in safety precautions . . . instruct and educate and train the consumers better," he said in an interview this summer.

"I'm trying to convince the amusement park people that a little bit of sunshine here to see what's happening from park to park and what the statistics are won't hurt anybody and, in the end, you might be able to save lives."

"People die on roller-coasters at a higher rate per mile than on planes, buses and trains," said Markey.

Markey's staff has said that Stearns has not discussed such a compromise with him.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company