washingtonpost.com
Amusement Rides: Safety Is Optional
No Federal Oversight of Theme Parks

Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007 12:00 PM

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.

Read the Story: On Thrill Rides, Safety Is Optional

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."

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency responsbile for regulating traveling carnival rides, has not required manufacturers to make improvements in the last eight years.

Washington Post staff writer Elizabeth Williamson will be online Tuesday, Dec. 4, at Noon ET to discuss the safety of amusement park rides and the Post's investigation.

A transcript follows.

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Elizabeth Williamson: Hello everyone; here today to discuss the amusement park oversight story, welcome and look forward to your queries...

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Germantown, Md.: The Washington Post really needs to write better headlines (also see: "Obama Rumors"). Your story is mostly about carnival and fair rides rather than theme parks, which have a very good safety record. Yet the headline says "Theme Parks". I note that the inside picture shows Timothy Fan, who was killed on Kings Dominion's Shockwave, yet strangely is not mentioned in the story. Could this be because Timothy, like most fatalities in well-managed theme parks, did not follow park instructions for the ride (as in, do not wiggle out from under the restraints?)

I am not a park employee, yet as a member of a roller coaster club, go to many theme parks and they are -always- very safety conscious, to the point where the restraints can even ruin the ride (see again, Shockwave.) The last thing the theme parks need is more hysteria leading to more onerous ride restraints.

Kaitlyn Lassiter's injuries are quite horrific she certainly deserves sympathy, but when you consider the millions of riders on theme park rides every year, they have an enviable safety record.

Elizabeth Williamson: Hi, as a fellow roller coaster fan, I understand your position. I don't think the story was strictly about carnivals, on the contrary there is at least some federal oversight of those operations. Accidents are indeed rare, but actually we don't really know because there is no objective, comprehensive source of stats. So I'd submit we can do better on all fronts.

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Virginia: I went to King's Dominion and the people there always make sure my seats don't move. Is there more awareness?

Elizabeth Williamson: No operator ever wants even a single accident, and have many good and high-tech methods of avoiding them. But I noticed in my reporting that when an accident does occur, it leads to a period of heightened awareness, just as it leads to renewed calls for better regulation.

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Anonymous: Some of these accidents are truly horrific (I think here of the 13-year-old amputee).

But honestly, how many of these could have been prevented with some common sense? Some of the examples -- not all, but 'some' -- sound like too-little kids on too-big rides, which would fall more under someone's judgment rather than the original manufacture. (Putting a four-year-old in an amusement park wave pool?! Am I the only one who sees something not kosher about this? I seem to recall those being rather rough water for some odd reason, and I don't know a whole lot of four year olds who know how to swim...)

Also, aren't there usually restrictions on how big you have to be for the restraints to actually do their jobs? How many of these people were actually smaller than the restraints were designed to hold?

Elizabeth Williamson: Yes, it is true--and it is a dominant industry argument--that human error by operators or patrons, leads to these accidents. As the mom of a 4 year old, I would never leave my son unattended in any body of water. But does it make sense to take a buyer beware approach to a child that age? Why not add a few safeguards--like a life preserver requirement?

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Arlington, Va.: Ms. Williamson:

That was a remarkable article about the lack of safety regulation in amusement parks. Two comments astounded me. First, the comment from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) "They've had a few deaths and they've had a few accidents, but for the most part it's been pretty good," Stearns said in an interview. He said he agrees with the industry that lots of accident victims "are tired, and...in many cases don't follow directions." Are we to infer from Mr. Stearns that if directions are so easily ignored due to fatigue, we should simply let it pass? The second comment was from Robert W. Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. He said "You have to look at the risk-reward of these programs...There may be people out there who want more regulation, but there has to be a return on that investment." Amusement parks, he said, "need less taxes, less government oversight. But they need federal support" to bring in more visitors. So, he wants the U.S. taxpayer to fork over more money to increase profits for his members, but he'll fight tooth and nail against any type of effective safety enforcement. That's astounding.

We took our 3 year-old son to Six Flags this fall. That will be his last trip to an amusement park and I'll be sure to tell everyone I know about the lack of safety regulation at theme parks and carnivals. Thanks for a great article.

Elizabeth Williamson: Thank you. Again, I know that parks do try to safeguard their patrons, but the regulatory history of our country shows that a competent, objective layer of oversight beats self-policing.

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Anonymous: To what extent are injuries incurred in small traveling carnival rides compared to fixed venues run by corporations? I find it hard to hold "carnies" to task for safety measures.

Elizabeth Williamson: It is very hard to gauge, as there is no accessible, comprehensive source of fixed-site amusement park injury data to provide a basis for comparison.

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Detroit, Mich.: Is there any pending legislation (state or federal) that would require amusement parks to post or make public yearly accidents/fatalities? I know that such rides are meant to give one a sensation of a dangerous thrill. However, I remember when a couple years ago, I took my eight-year-old daughter on Space Mountain at Disneyland, I had to hold on to her with one hand, while I was holding onto the bar in front with the other. I was convinced that had I not done so, she would have been thrown out of her seat. It would be nice to know ahead of time if any accidents have occurred on a particular ride.

Elizabeth Williamson: unfortunately, there is no such source of accident statistics. The consumer product safety commission publishes mobile and fixed-site ride injury data but the latter set of stats is provided in raw form, with an algorithm for consumers to use. Our database editor worked with it for a day, and could not make objective sense of it.

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Union Station, Washington, D.C.: While I agree that a more standardized safety program nationwide would be a good idea, Congressman Markey is not the person who should be behind it. He has demagogued this issue into the ground with his rhetoric designed more to score electoral points than actually do anything constructive.

I have been a patron of amusement parks for years and an enthusiast for almost as long. The only time I've ever seen anyone hurt at a park was due to the patron's own negligence. The vast majority of park injuries are becuase of people not doing what their supposed to so, liek use seat belts and not try to get out of the ride before it has actually stopped. You can't legislate against stupidity.

Elizabeth Williamson: Agreed, but you can try to better protect people who may not always use good judgment--meaning children. I don't know what evidence you have to say that about Rep. Markey so I'll not address that point.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there a significant difference between the incident rates at state fairs and similar type operations and the incident rates at large corporate places like 6 Flags and Disney parks?

Did you look at how other countries regulate or don't regulate rides at all?

Elizabeth Williamson: on your first question, we don't really know. In its last, and final, report on ride injuries, the CPSC estimated that in 2004, 2,500 people were injured on traveling carnival rides and 3,400 on fixed-site amusement park rides. The industry disputes that data, saying its' self-reported numbers for amusement park injuries are far less. But court documents given to me in a Disney case pointed to more than 2,600 injuries on 5 rides alone, between 1999 and 2001.

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Centreville, Va.: The death of Timothy Fan on the Shockwave at King's Dominion was attributed to rider misconduct, not ride safety. All reports suggested that he tried to circumvent the safety measures on the ride on purpose. To include this tragic event in this story, really just calls into question the entire article which is unfair to the real victims in the story.

Elizabeth Williamson: Hi, yes I read the reports on Timothy Fan's death. I won't address that one as I didn't see investigation documents, but I will tell you often these investigations find that patrons do things they shouldn't; other times it turns out that while initially, operators say it was the patron's fault, investigators find that's not true. Again, I would say that you're dealing with kids, and young people who may not always use good judgement. Is it possible to better protect them, even against themselves? People interviewed in the story think so.

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Washington, D.C.: I am curious as to whether any civil litigation was pursued in the cases where people were hurt or injured, for example, the young woman who lost her foot. It seems as if no one is being held accountable.

Elizabeth Williamson: The family of Kaitlyn Lassiter, whose feet were severed on the Tower of Power ride at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, is suing Six Flags. Right now, both parties have agreed on a method for testing the cable that snapped, and wrapped itself around her feet, but they have not agreed on which lab should perform the test. But other aspects of the suit are proceeding.

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Elizabeth Williamson: I've had a lot of questions about the rationale and the agreements made by the theme parks...I would encourage readers to go to the link to the story on washingtonpost.com, which we'll post in a minute, and read through them. They include the exchange between the state regulators' group and the Sizzler manufacturer; an interesting and detailed agreement between the State of Florida and Disney, Universal and Busch showing how limited state oversight of those parks is; and the CPSC accident report for Fatima Cervantes, who the lead anecdote in the story.

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Fairfax, Va.: What would you advise parents and kids about going on rides at carnivals, amusement parks? How does one know which ones are safe? They all advertise that they're fun.

Elizabeth Williamson: Hmmm, I'm not in the advice-giving business, and I don't want to be alarmist, either. Ride safety activists that I've spoken with say their biggest concerns are height requirements--being sure that kids are tall and big enough to ride the "big kid" rides. Second, that children ride with an adult are much older child whenever possible, and that patrons obey all posted signs. It is striking that a number of victims' parents that I spoke with say their child's accident occurred on the first, or one of the first days, their child was big enough to ride the more challenging rides. That speaks to the height issue, among other things.

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Elizabeth Williamson: This week, as the story says, Rep. Ed Markey will introduce an amendment to restore federal oversight of amusement parks. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions opposes this and has mounted a "grass roots" campaign among its members to defeat that effort. We'll post the IAAPA link in a second....

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washingtonpost.com: On Thrill Rides, Safety Is Optional ( Post, Dec. 4)

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Virginia: My dad suffered a subdural hematoma (bleeding on the brain) from a fall unrelated to theme park rides. But when I researched this condition, the prevalance of hematomas due to thrill rides came up again and again, especially in younger people, who, apart from traumatic falls or crushing injuries, typically do not suffer from hematomas.

Did you find this also?

Elizabeth Williamson: Yes, there have been cases against Disney alleging that people suffered brain injuries, including this one, on the company's rides. There is a body of research on the topic, as you say, and that too has prompted calls for G-force limits, for example, on these rides. Again, the industry disputes these findings and demands for limits, and has its own experts who say the rides do not cause these injuries.

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Elizabeth Williamson: I forgot to answer one reader's question about other countries--in Canada, a non-governmental body coordinates ride regulation in the provinces, but they create their own regulations. The European Union has looked into establishing uniform ride safety regulations but so far has not--they have run into similar lobbying against that, from the industry and from some country members.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Would you not agree that in a free market society (and in this particulary litigious one)that the consumer's decision to go to a park or to sue if there is an incident is built-in oversight? If families choose not to go to Six Flags, for example, or choose to not ride a particular ride (like yourself) because of its past history is penalty enough? Huge judgments force major operators to be very cognizant of safety. They are unable to be insured if there is not annual non-destructive testing and continual inspection by third party inspectors. No one ever brings that up in lieu of an argument for more govenment already overburdened by either unrealistic or ineffective regulations in a myriad of industries.

Elizabeth Williamson: On the contrary, amusement parks and their representatives bring that argument up all the time: that insurance requirements, and big injury judgements are enough inspiration for running a tight ship. Also, that the negative PR resulting from an injury is incentive enough for improving safety. Again, I do not doubt anyone's good intentions in the story. Let me throw this question out there, though--if the industry is as safe as it says, why are parks so resistant to publishing any type of comprehensive injury data? And why do they attempt to seal court records and make it a condition of settlement that accident victims not discuss their cases?

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Alexandria, Va.: Ms. Williamson,

Here is a link to the National Safety Council report for ride injuries in 2005 so you can include it with the other resources you are providing readers.

FIXED-SITE AMUSEMENT RIDE INJURY SURVEY, 2005 UPDATE (pdf) The report was prepared by the National Safety Council.

Also, here is a link to ride safety tips which may be helpful.

IAAPA

Elizabeth Williamson: Thank you--readers should know that these reports were paid for and prepared by amusement parks, which supplied the injury statistics themselves. There was no independent body involved in compiling, preparing or reviewing these reports. The National Safety Council prepared its report under contract to the industry.

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Washington, D.C.: Elizabeth,

I believe you characterized the Consumer Product Safety Commission's resources as being restricted and overburdened with current authorities already extended. Would the $500,000 of appropriated money in Rep. Markey's legislation substantially increase CPSC's ability to inspect rides and provide an additional safety net for the amusement industry? I take from your story that there are varying levels of state regulation, but are you aware of the amount of money that states with well developed regulations spend to oversee operations at amusement parks?

Thank you for your consideration of these questions. I look forward to your response.

Elizabeth Williamson: Hmmm, which states with well developed regulations might those be? RE the 500k, you make a good point. I wondered that myself. I do not think anyone has the magic bullet here, or the magic number on budget, but I think the story makes clear that we could do better, even if doing better is an incremental endeavor.

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