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Another Attempt For Government Regulation of Parks


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On thrill rides, safety is optional

No federal oversight of theme parks

 

 

 

Critics say there is virtually no oversight of theme park thrill rides in the United States.

 

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.

 

Randy Lasitter, Kaitlyn's father, said he was shocked to learn that state agriculture inspectors would be looking into the accident. "We thought there must be somebody they're reporting to in Washington, or working with in Washington . . . but it wasn't," he said. "People who go to those parks have this illusion of safety. It's an illusion, we know that."

 

Although the CPSC regulates children's toys, strollers, bicycles and car seats, it has no jurisdiction over rides at fixed amusement parks, such as those run by Walt Disney Co., Six Flags, Universal and Anheuser-Busch Entertainment that host an estimated 300 million people on 1.84 billion rides annually.

 

Theme parks won their exemption in 1981, after a CPSC probe of ride accidents at Marriott theme parks alleged a coverup of safety hazards. Marriott, represented by Kenneth W. Starr, then a young Washington lawyer, and the industry fought back in the courts and on the Hill, where its top lobbyist complained about the "economic hardship" created by CPSC policing. More safety measures lessening risks would "make the ride worthless," lobbyist John Graff told Congress at the time. "The activities of the commission must be limited."

 

The exemption was included in an omnibus agriculture bill that year, leaving oversight of theme parks to disparate state programs, including some lacking inspectors or enforcement powers. Family activists and state regulators say that as a result, efforts to find and correct safety problems have been inhibited, the number and extent of ride injuries remains uncertain, and families have been prevented from assessing the risks posed by roller coasters and Ferris wheels, wave pools and spinning rides.

 

"It would be nice if the federal government could come down and say 'You should do this' . . . and we had some uniform enforcement," said Mark Mooney, the Massachusetts inspection chief and president of the Council for Amusement and Recreational Equipment Safety (CARES), a voluntary organization of state regulators.

 

Carolyn McLean, a spokeswoman for Six Flags Kentucky, where the Tower of Power ride is slated to be dismantled, said, however, that "our industry is extremely well-regulated at the state level." The ride was inspected daily by the company, Six Flags has said.

 

Kentucky's inspectors say that state law requires only that they check rides once a year -- about as often as they check supermarket egg displays. Douglas Rathbun, the state inspection chief, said he and his fellow inspectors "follow manufacturer specifications" because "they are the ride experts. You'll not see anyone in Kentucky say 'Add a seat belt' unless the manufacturer says 'Add a seat belt.' "

 

Oversight elsewhere is often scattershot or nonexistent, state regulators say. New York City's rides, including those at Coney Island, are exempt from state oversight. Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Utah and Wyoming do not monitor their amusement parks, even though Utah's Lagoon park is one of the nation's largest privately held theme parks. Arizona, Kansas and Tennessee do not require state inspections or accident investigations.

 

The legal patchwork complicates investigations and enforcement. When 3-year-old Myesha Roberson was ejected from a Sizzler and crushed by the spinning machine in Las Vegas in 1997, for example, Clark County officials ordered the ride shut down until seat belts or some other restraints were installed.

 

Instead, "the ride was removed from Clark County," building inspector David Durkee said. "I do not know what happened to it [and] I don't have the means to track it."

 

Nancy Medeiros, the senior engineer in California's amusement ride inspection office, also expressed frustration. Rides with problems get sold, she said. "Across the states, there's this network of 'Hey, where did that ride go?' "

 

After a series of accidents at Disneyland and other parks, California enacted a tough law calling for independent annual inspections and for accident investigations. Court filings by Disney in response to a lawsuit alleging a serious brain injury at its California park had disclosed more than 2,600 visitor-reported injuries on five rides alone -- Indiana Jones Adventure, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Star Tours, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad -- from 1999 to 2001.

 

But eight years after the California measure was signed, it has yet to be fully implemented. Violations can go unpunished, because the state and parks have not agreed on the amount of any fines.

 

"When I look at it, I see a stream of human suffering that isn't broad enough to matter to Congress or to matter financially to the companies," said Kathy Fackler, who founded Saferparks.org after her son David lost part of his foot on a Disneyland roller coaster in 1998 when he was 5. "It's like this small number of children are expendable to them."

 

Disney World -- the most visited amusement park on the globe -- polices itself. Florida law allows inspectors to visit big amusement parks only when the parks invite them, and so Walt Disney World, Busch Entertainment and Universal Orlando once a year host state Agriculture Department inspectors for an educational seminar and a discussion of their safety procedures. But the visits are hands-off.

 

"They show us their maintenance programs . . . we look at the facilities," said state regulatory chief Rob Jacobs. "We do not inspect. We have no authority."

 

Only after a series of accident-related suits and complaints in 2000 and 2001 did the three big Florida theme park operators agree to report ride-related injuries and fatalities. But in a carefully worded agreement, reportable injuries were limited to those requiring immediate hospitalization and a stay of more than 24 hours for treatment.

 

Loopholes and lobbyists

Markey first introduced legislation to reinstate federal authority over theme park rides eight years ago, after a string of ride accidents killed four people in a week in 1999. Since then, he has been able to secure only a single half-hour hearing on the issue. His bill this year, which would also add $500,000 to the CPSC budget to handle theme park rides, has 11 co-sponsors, and not one backer in the Senate.

 

"Every summer there is a flurry of interest as the accidents and injuries happen," Markey said in an interview. By autumn, "nobody decides that this is a big issue. . . . Very few industries have been able to build a loophole in federal law and hold it for as long as they have. They are a powerful lobbying force."

 

In 2001, the first full year after the sole hearing on Markey's bill, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions nearly quadrupled its lobbying spending, to $430,000. It also retained Williams & Jensen, a lobbying firm close to the House Republican leadership, at a cost of more than $1.8 million since 2001. Even Markey, a member of a telecommunications subcommittee, received a total of $23,000 in campaign contributions from Disney and Universal during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles.

 

Overall, the association has spent $5.4 million on lobbying since 2001. Disney, Universal and Anheuser-Busch -- operators of the nation's biggest theme parks -- have separately spent millions on lobbying to influence theme park safety regulation and other issues that concern them, according to reports compiled by Political Money Line.

 

Since Markey introduced his bill, theme parks and their lobbyists have also funded at least 18 trips to theme parks and resort areas for seven lawmakers, plus 46 top staff members, at a cost of more than $114,000. In 2001, for example, an aide to Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and 10 other congressional staffers visited Orlando for a three-day trip sponsored by the international association that included a seminar on safety issues, according to documents compiled by LegiStorm.

 

Stearns became the chairman that year of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's consumer protection subcommittee, and in the five years that he held the post, the congressman said, he kept Markey's bill from coming to a vote because he found the accident rate unremarkable. During this period, he collected $38,000 in campaign contributions from Disney, Universal, Anheuser-Busch and theme park lobbyists.

 

"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."

 

At a House hearing on Nov. 15, Stearns also argued that what Markey called the "roller-coaster loophole" has worked fine, and that the consumer agency already had enough on its plate. He brought large charts conveying the industry's message that theme park accidents per capita are less frequent than those caused by leisure pursuits such as basketball, football, and other popular sports shared by adults as well as children.

 

That claim is hard to judge, because the CPSC stopped issuing reports of fixed-site ride injuries in 2005, when the official who compiled them resigned. Theme park lobbyists complained that the final estimate of 3,400 injuries in 2004 was double the parks' own count.

 

The subcommittee's new chairman, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), said little during the exchange between Markey and Stearns. Rush has said that he is committed to overhauling and improving enforcement at the CPSC. "I told him I would look at it," he said in an interview about Markey's amendment. "I haven't been to an amusement park in years. It's not something I'm really conscious about."

 

But he added that he supports an amusement and hospitality industry plan to tap more than $200 million in federal funding for a program to bring more tourists to the United States. "Tourism is a very important agenda item for me," he said.

 

Robert W. Johnson, who helped lead the fight against federal jurisdiction 26 years ago and is now president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, whose 5,000 members include theme park and carnival operators, 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.

 

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22088012/

 

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People who go to those parks have this illusion of safety. It's an illusion, we know that.

 

Please. Yes, rides and parks need to be inspected and have safety regulations, but come on. Just because your daughter had an unfortunate accident doesn't mean safety is an illusion. Seriously, how many injuries are there a year on rides that are not the rider's fault? Not all that many.

 

I don't understand how people who worry this much about rides survive day-to-day life. How do they eat? You never know when you might ingest some wicked bacteria? Do they cake themselves in sunscreen during the summer? Do they drive? Do they stay inside all winter long to avoid threatening sicknesses?

 

Maybe I'm going a little over the top. People just annoy me I guess.

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^ People annoy me too, and I think most of us here agree that the whole "parks aren't safe, if you go to a park you will DIE" media and attitudes are more than slightly hyperbolic and ridiculous, but in the case of that girl's father, I kinda somewhat forgive his attitude. I mean, it's somewhat annoying for us that he would talk to the press about it, because it gives them something to run with and turn into a huge unnecessar safety debate, but I know people who've lost loved ones in building site accidents who cross the street to stay away from construction, people who've been seriously injured in bar brawls who will no longer go to clubs of bars... Do their experiences mean that all construction sites or bars are unsafe? Of course not. But our experiences and those of those close to us shape our opinions and fears. So in his case... I make an exception.

 

I don't really know what my point is. I'll admit that I didn't read this whole story, too long for my tired eyes right now. But from what I did read... Much of it seems to make it sound like the park industry has somehow wheedled its way out of inspections and safety laws. Typical media panic. There have been countless stories like this before and will be many more to come. Doesn't seem to affect the industry too much. People annoy me. The media annoys me more.

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I hope we built more rough vekomas to make obsessed people feel safer!!! People really bug me. I hate it when they ask me if it is safe to ride. Oh and some that do not follow the rules end up getting hurt, so a lot of this safety illusion comes from not following the rules correctly.

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cause an average of four deaths

 

Enough said.

 

Work accidents alone cause on average 14 deaths DAILY. And we don't see people complaining about how much safer work needs to be all the time now do we?

 

 

So true! Plus a lot of the deaths at theme parks etc.. are due to idiots who shouldn't be allowed outside. Parents should watch their kids, no matter how old or young at any carnival or theme park.

 

I don't think we need any kind of goverment regs on this stuff, I think we need it on stupid parents/kids. If the parents don't follow the guidelines/rules on rides why should the park pay for it?

 

This kind of stuff pisses me off!!!

 

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like without stupid people runnin around loose

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The legal patchwork complicates investigations and enforcement. When 3-year-old Myesha Roberson was ejected from a Sizzler and crushed by the spinning machine in Las Vegas in 1997, for example, Clark County officials ordered the ride shut down until seat belts or some other restraints were installed.

 

Why would a parent let their 3-year-old daughter on a high speed scrambler? I know that this death must have been terrible for the family, but parents need to issue a little common sense before they allow their children onto a high speed / high g-force ride.

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Wow, this is so stupid! I can't believe that people are getting this upset over a few injuries on rides. You have more of a chance to die in your car on the way to work than you do riding a coaster. Most every single one of these injuries are also the rider's fault. People love breaking rules. i know no one wants to believe it, but its true. I mean just today, I watched a pov on youtube of Kumba and the kid sitting next to the guy with the camera intentionally unbuckled his seat belt after leaving the station. All of this is pure stupidity, we don't need government regulation, we need common sense education.

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Everytime I see this I just get pissed. I always think of two things.

 

1. how many people die from drunk drivers.

 

2. Every year in Indiana alone 57 kids are killed from abuse by their own parents.

 

Out of these 2 along with amusment accidents I wonder which one is the least severe problem.

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There should be some oversight. Just not at a federal level.

 

As a matter of fact, I think California has a very good system for regulation. Long story short, the law just makes sure all the employees are being properly trained and that everything is being done according to the manufacturers guidelines. It also makes sure all accidents that require beyong basic first aid are reported and any problems are corrected. Just enough to keep the parks honest without being obnoxious and overbearing (Like New Jersey, which IIRC, has a G-force limit).

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This article really got to me. I couldn't even read the whole thing before I started writing some feedback to give to Ms. Elizabeth Williams. Here's what I submitted (it will probably cast out or not recognized).

 

If it doesn't make sense at some points, it is because there were a lot of things going through my head and I couldn't type them fast enough. I also didn't bother to read it before I submitted it.

 

Nice article, very interesting read. I do not fully understand why this article seemed to carry the undertone that amusement parks do nothing to make sure their guests are safe. The government can regulate all they want but when it really comes down to injuries at amusement parks, most are caused by the rider themselves.

 

Grouping Amusement and Theme Parks together with Fairs really upset me. There is a stark difference between those two types of parks. Most incidents that happen at fairs are caused by faulty rides that stem from a lack care for the customer's safety, but at Theme and Amusement parks it's a different story. I used to work at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, and I can say that there are strict safety policies and regulations in place. Now the accident on Superman: Tower of Power is a complete freak accident and is one of the few news stories where the ride itself can be blamed for the rider's injuries.

 

When it comes to safety at parks, people must realize that these are machines that, if used the wrong way can injure, or even kill. Many of the accidents that involve children at amusement parks are initiated by the parents themselves. From first hand experience I can say that many leave common sense at the front gate. Parents see a ride, want to take there children on it, and will go so far as to threaten, scream, or curse if their child isn't let on. Why would any responsible parent push so hard to get a 3-4 year old on one of these machines? Because they don't pay attention to the all the Warning signs in the queue line, or the audio that blasts safety information every 3 minutes. When people enter the park they automatically assume that everything there is for every single person in the family, or they can judge the intensity of a ride by how high it is off the ground.

 

When I worked at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom I was 17 years old. I was a ride operator on the Roadrunner Express roller coaster. Almost everyday I was yelled at, cursed at, or threatened at least once by a 30-50 something father or mother because their kids couldn't ride the coaster; many times because the children were half an inch under the minimum height requirement.

 

Don't tell me that Kentucky Kingdom doesn't care about rider's safety; that's priority number 1. Safety is the park's responsibility, but insuring that everyone is safe at amusement parks is everyone's responsibility. To really understand how it is and how many of these accidents can occur you have to spend a day in 100 degree heat, with a family whose upset because on there own terms, decided the ride was safe enough for 4 year old Cody to enjoy, stood in an hour long line, just to get to the platform and be turned away. Keep in mind that they HAD to pass the huge safety information signs (that are required by law), accompanied with a self measure height stand (which CANNOT be missed), and the whole time safety info and height restrictions are playing throughout the line. There is no excuse for any responsible parent to disregard all of that, yet thousands of families do it each and every day amusement parks are open.

 

The issue I have with this article (and many similar ones) is that they sound like they were written not to inform, but to scare. These articles always seem like they aim to completely destroy Amusement Park's reputations, but never question why 4 year old Cody was forced onto the "Demon Drop" or the "G-Force Coaster" by his parents in the first place. These articles always seem to state that "so many have died at parks this year" but never mention that Billy lost his hat on the coaster, jumped the restricted area fence when he got off the ride, was being yelled at fiercely by the ride ops to get out of there, while at the same time they are E-stopping the ride, causing panic on the coaster train that has just stopped abruptly on the lift hill. Unfortunately, the second train that is currently traveling the course has just passed the mid-course safety brake, and is now once again under the influence of Earth's gravity. Billy has almost reached his hat, while the coaster train has almost reached Billy. He retrieves his hat and tries to jump the 8ft high fence he shouldn't have climbed over in the first place, but the train catches up with him, and his neck is broken by the leg of a rider in the front row. Now Billy's dead, a guy has to live with the fact that his leg (which is now shattered) just killed a man. A man abandons all reason and common sense over a hat, is killed and leave's multiple people injured and traumatized. Now you tell me that is the park's fault with a straight face. All safety procedures had been taken, the ride ops did what they could, the park sealed off unsafe areas, which have BIG danger signs posted all along the fence, and yet someone manages to end up dying and becoming a statistic in a news article about how unsafe parks are.

 

I know you spent a lot of time making this article, but it comes off as a fear creator. Not to me, millions of Amusement park employees, or coaster enthusiasts, but to the Swanson's whose three children are raised by responsible parents, parents who actually use common sense when the family is out and about. They see this article and miss out on one of the best experiences a family could have together. Thank you for reading my feedback, I hope this isn't just disregarded as senseless opinion.

 

 

EDIT: Edited into paragraphs to make it easier to read. Please be sure to spend the extra time and "bother to read it" before posting. -Joey

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The article even stated that fixed amusement parks host over 300 million guests a year and give in excess of 1.8 billion rides. And there are what, maybe 18 deaths at USA parks in a year (and that's an overestimate in my opinion)?

 

 

That means 1 in 100 million rides ends in a death or severe injury.

 

 

That is an absolutely insane ratio. Your chances of dying doing any other everyday activity are higher than that.

 

 

Honestly I don't see why Ed Markey always insists on bringing it up. What an asshat to waste money like that. Fix a real problem, like the genocide in Sudan. Ridiculous...

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This is some stupid Crap.

 

Roller Coasters "are" the safest mode of transportation. Yes Cables do break and yes they may "slice" a foot or two off. But who the heck cares. how many runs did that Tower have on it on that cable????

 

I'm sure the girl who lost one of her feets care.

 

Accidents like that shouldn't happen, and it may seem like it happend because SFKK used a different cable than Intamins? Anyway, that is one accident that was caused by the ride. Most accidents are caused by the riders, and imo there is not much more you can do to prevent this. Stupid people will always find a way to do stupid stuff. As long as the parks do their thing to keep the rides safe, and they do right now, there isn't much more you can do! Also connect fairs and amusement parks is very unfair!

 

For some reason, I'm glad I live in europe now

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While we're talking about getting all hyped up over something that really isn't a threat, perhaps I should point out this little tidbit from the article:

 

His bill this year, which would also add $500,000 to the CPSC budget to handle theme park rides, has 11 co-sponsors, and not one backer in the Senate.

 

It will die. Next topic.

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Around 8 people will die next year at amusement parks. Of those eight:

Four will be on roller coasters.

Two will be on other rides.

Two will not occur on a ride.

Five will be caused by unsafe guest behavior.

One will the result of a brain aneurism.

One will be caused by operator error.

One will be caused by a mechanical malfunction or lack of safety.

 

No matter what, though, you're way more likely to win the Powerball at its highest.

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I do feel very bad for anyone that dies at an amusement park. But like everyone has said, if they don't follow the rules, than what else can you do. I never ride carnival rides, besides maybe some little one's. The Kentucky Kingdome accident was incredibly horrible, but I find it odd that she is the only one they can mention by name. And yes, the media is full of fear mongers, every story they "report" on is not to inform, but to scare the crap out of you.

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I do not have a problem with some sort of government safety program as long as it does not go too far. But there are things that should be done, like requiring a well documented inspection program and certain safety modifications to rides that have had problems elsewhere.

 

It's something that most big parks do anyway. But it is not always done in fairs and carnivals. Leaving this up to the state causes the problem that these rides are mobile and can easily cross state lines, so without some sort of federal guidelines the operator can simply go to a different state and basically ignore what another state says.

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^^That's because it was the only one this year in the States that was not caused by a pre-existing medical condition or by guest behavior.

I was at SFKK the day that happened, and the whole time we were there, something just felt wrong. It was stifling out and the staff was being completely uncooperative. I can't really explain what it felt like. It was really strange. Needless to say, we were very sad when we heard the news that night at Holiday World, albeit somewhat unsurprised.

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I do not have a problem with some sort of government safety program as long as it does not go too far. But there are things that should be done, like requiring a well documented inspection program and certain safety modifications to rides that have had problems elsewhere.

 

It's something that most big parks do anyway. But it is not always done in fairs and carnivals. Leaving this up to the state causes the problem that these rides are mobile and can easily cross state lines, so without some sort of federal guidelines the operator can simply go to a different state and basically ignore what another state says.

 

The Fed is every bit as likely to screw it up as the states are. Some suggested Federal guidelines developed in accordance with industry experts wouldn't necessarily be bad, so long as they aren't mandatory and the states are left to do the regulation. The Fed is an overgrown monster as it is. Zero need to bloat it up even more.

 

This is a solution looking for a problem. As willski pointed out, the statistical safety of amusement rides in the US is *insane*. Walking and eating peanuts are more dangerous.

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