How Safe Are Amusement Parks? Umm… We’re Not Sure

How Safe Are Amusement Parks? Umm...We're Not Sure - via Babble
The New Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas.

The tragic death of  a Texas mom earlier this month has once again brought the safety of theme parks front and center, but there seem to be more questions than answers.

Rosa Ayala-Goana, known to friends as Rosy Esparza, a generous and caring mother, fell to her death from a 14-story roller coaster at Six Flags amusement park in Arlington, a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

Carmen Brown, a witness, told ABC News that she heard Ms. Esparza tell a park employee that she didn’t think her lap bar was secure. Ms. Brown said Ms. Esparza told the employee that she “only heard one click,” to which the employee replied that it was “OK, if you heard it click.”

“I can, with reasonable certainty, say there is a policy somewhere on this roller coaster that says you need more than one click on your lap bar,” safety analyst Ken Martin told Bay News 9. “That has got to be written somewhere, and if it’s not, it should be again that just an industry standard.”

Roller coaster inspector Kenneth Martin told the Dallas Morning News  that roller coasters “have one-size-fits-all safety bars, generally designed for someone who weighs 180 pounds.”  As a point of reference, the CDC says that the average weight of the American man is about 195 pounds.

“The operators should absolutely be able to determine if a person’s body mass can fit inside of the riding compartment the restraint mechanism correctly fits their body and will retain them within the unit,” Bill Avery of Avery Safety Consulting Park Employees told ABC News. The Texas Giant, billed as the tallest steel roller coaster in the world, does not have a posted weight limit.

Six Flags has shut down the Texas Giant while it investigates the accident.

How safe are amusement parks?
Incredibly, we really don’t know. A study published earlier this year in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that an average of 4,400 children are injured annually on rides, with carousels accounting for about a fifth of the injuries. Roller coasters accounted for only 10 percent of the injuries. One-third of those injured were children under the age of five. The study didn’t examine how many deaths occurred, and it didn’t examine accidents that happened to adults.

There is no national tracking system for injuries or deaths related to amusement park rides. The Consumer Safety Product Commission (CSPC) used to track this data, but it doesn’t any more. The International Association for Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) notes that Congress stripped the CPSC of its ability to track these incidents because amusement park rides aren’t a household product. The CSPC reported that 52 deaths occurred related to amusement park rides between 1980 and 2004, says NBC News.

The IAAPA also says that the chance of being seriously injured on a ride at a fixed-site park in the U.S. is 1 in 24 million. Sounds like the odds are pretty good, but here’s the thing: they arrived at that number via a survey paid for by the IAAPA. The report itself notes that “of the 383 eligible facilities with rides in 2011, 144 provided some or all of the data requested.” Also, the IAAPA only looked at accidents, not deaths. So…yeah.

The most comprehensive tracking of ride-related injuries and deaths may be, a nonprofit, non-affiliated website that tracks news reports of injuries and deaths at amusement parks. The site is maintained by Jared Costanza, who started the site in 1996 after witnessing a minor accident while working as a ride operator.

“I wondered how often accidents happened,” Mr. Costanza told Seacoast Online. “My curiosity turned into frustration when I discovered how difficult it was to find reports of accidents. There was no user-friendly resource that provided this information anywhere, yet accidents were happening.”

Who’s in charge here, anyway?
With a guy named Jared running the closest thing we have to a national tracking system, who’s issuing safety standards?  The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Safety Council both cite amusement park safety standards set forth by ASTM International, says NBC News, but they’re voluntary. And ASTM International isn’t a government agency: it’s a well-respected professional society formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.

There is no federal oversight of amusement parks, notes NBC News. Although the IAAPA asserts that 44 of 50 states “regulate” amusement parks, that doesn’t mean that regulations are being enforced. Seventeen states, including Texas, have no state agency responsible for inspecting amusement parks. Eight states require no permits or inspections at all: Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

And that’s just for fixed-site amusement parks. The rides at carnivals that pack up and move around are a completely different ballgame. The CPSC regulates how those rides are built, but it’s up to states to look after how rides are set up, maintained, operated, and inspected. And state laws vary widely: you can look up your state’s permit and regulations rules in this CPSC document.

With no federal or state oversight, Six Flags Over Texas will investigate itself in the death of Rosy Esparza.

Wait, what?
The Texas Insurance Department sets the guidelines for amusement park inspections, but inspections are carried out by the insurance company. Because Six Flags’ insurance isn’t in question, the Insurance Department isn’t investigating. Police aren’t investigating because foul play isn’t suspected.

So although Six Flags initially said in a statement that it was “working with authorities” to figure out what happened, it later had to admit that it was actually running the investigation itself, because there are no authorities.

Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, the German manufacturer of the Texas Giant, is also sending company personnel to inspect the roller coaster, ABC News says.

How can families ride safely at amusement parks?
The IAPPA says that “a majority of the injuries occur because the guest didn’t follow posted ride safety guidelines or rode with a pre-existing medical condition.” It’s unclear where they get that statistic, because their most recent safety report doesn’t list the causes of accidents. But since we have no other data to work with, let’s take a look at their safety tips:

  • Obey listed age, height, weight, and health restrictions.
  • Observe all posted ride safety rules.
  • Keep hands, arms, legs and feet inside the ride at all times.
  • Remain seated in the ride until it comes to a complete stop and you are instructed to exit.
  • Follow all verbal instructions given by ride operators or provided by recorded announcements.
  • Always use safety equipment provided and never attempt to wriggle free of or loosen restraints or other safety devices.
  • Parents with young children should make sure that their children can understand safe and appropriate ride behavior.
  • Never force anyone, especially children, to ride attractions they don’t want to ride.
  • If you see any unsafe behavior or condition on a ride, report it to a supervisor or manager immediately.

For general tips on keeping your family safe at amusement parks, check out Babble’s 8 Valuable Amusement Park Safety Tips to Keep Everyone Smiling.

(Photo Credit: SFOTPR/Wikimedia Commons)

Read more from Joslyn on Babble and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow Joslyn on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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