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Where Is the Federal Oversight to Prevent Theme Park Accidents?

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Arlington, TXIt was three years ago that an army veteran who had previously lost both legs while serving his country in Iraq was strapped into a roller coaster in Upstate New York. The man was not wearing his prosthetic legs, but attraction supervisors permitted him to ride anyway. Tragically, the absence of his legs meant he was unable to remain in his seat while the ride was in motion and he fell 150 feet to his death in a horrific Amusement Park Accident.

Whether patrons are not properly vetted for suitability for the ride by staff - or the ride itself is fraught with risk - the fact remains that federal oversight of, specifically, roller coaster safety ended in 1981. That was 33 years ago, long before most of the current, push-the-envelope thrill rides were ever conceived and built.

The New York Times (7/27/14) reports that the Consumer Product Safety Administration (CPSA) only regulates portable rides that tour around and migrate with traveling shows to various county fairs. Instead, fixed-site rides are regulated by each state - and oversight is inconsistent amongst the various states. Fixed-site rides, in some cases, can be inspected by building departments, for example, that normally oversee building codes and labor issues.

Little wonder Theme Park Accidents are continuing.

According to data released by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), about 300 million people paid a visit to the roughly 400 amusement parks that exist in the US in 2011 - the same year the US Army veteran and amputee fell to his death. Those patrons, in sum, took in about 1.7 billion rides. The Association insists that Americans have a greater chance of becoming injured in a car, or struck by lightning, than sustaining an injury from an amusement park ride. The IAAPA pegs the risk at about one in 24 million.

But that doesn’t placate critics calling for more oversight. “Roller coasters that hurtle riders at extreme speeds along precipitous drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in comments published in the New York Times.
“A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour. This is a mistake.”

There are various issues at play that appear to create a perfect storm for amusement park safety, or lack thereof. Thrill rides have become much faster and steeper in the 33 years since federal regulation ended in 1981. Over that same time frame, body size has evolved. Americans are, generally, becoming more obese.

A tragic amusement park death preceded by an ominous comment

The late Rosa Irene Ayala-Gaona, who fell to her death last summer, had commented that the T-shaped lap bar designed to hold her in place during the pending ride on the Texas Giant roller coaster at Arlington, was not fitting properly and didn’t appear to be fully secure, according to witnesses that talked to a local TV news crew following the horrific theme park accident.

The Texas Giant is a good example of the modern-day thrill rides that patrons increasingly seek. It rises 14 stories in one section. Ayala-Gaona tipped the scales at over 200 pounds. Was the Texas Giant roller coaster car designed, optimally, for someone with a lower weight and different body type? Such speculation may come out in the discovery phase of an Amusement Park lawsuit.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Ayala-Gaona was thrown from her seat while the ride was in motion - unable to be held in place by the T-bar restraint that allegedly was not secure - and the woman fell to her death.

A spokesperson for an association representing amusement parks notes that in their view, increased federal oversight would do little to make rides any safer, with “no evidence federal oversight would improve on the already excellent safety record of the industry.” Colleen Mangone cited a report, released last year by the association, which indicates injuries from theme park accidents have been relatively unchanged over the past 10 years or so.

However, critics suggest that such a report is flawed because it is based on self-reported data by association members. Those parks with the worst safety records could - and did - simply opt out of the survey.

Meanwhile, a study also released in 2013 by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that more than 93,000 children under the age of 18 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for amusement park injuries over a 20-year period ending in 2010. The researchers estimate a child is hospitalized once every three days each summer from an amusement park injury.

Federal oversight ended in 1981

The New York Times observes that some parks have specially designed seats for amputees or patrons with a larger girth. But not all do - and again, there is no federal, uniform oversight. Other parks use sample seats for a patron to try before determining suitability for a ride. But again, not all parks have this. And weight restrictions are interpretive, given that a 200-pound patron at 6' 1" has a much less pronounced girth than someone with that same weight spread over a smaller frame, say, 5' 5" or even 5' 0".

While parks will attempt to improve safety, they also put a heated focus on developing the next thrill ride that will draw patrons to their park v. a competitor. Jim Seay, identified as president of Premier Rides, noted that new technology has improved safety.

That said, the chief of the ride manufacturer noted the competitive pressure to have THE ride that is biggest, fastest, scariest.

“Parks in general know they need to provide something new for their guests every year,” he said, in comments published in the New York Times.

In the meantime, amusement park deaths and theme park accidents will continue. The New York Times reports that last month about two dozen patrons were stranded in midair for hours after a roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain was partially derailed due to a fallen tree branch. And last summer, the same day that Ayala-Gaona fell to her death in Arlington, a boat at the Cedar Point Shoot the Rapids water ride in Sandusky, Ohio, rolled backward and flipped over. At least six patrons were injured.

Such water park injuries can certainly bring an amusement park lawsuit.


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