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On thrill rides, safety is optional

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.
Critics say there is virtually no oversight of theme park thrill rides in the United States.
Critics say there is virtually no oversight of theme park thrill rides in the United States.Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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 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.

Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Rena Kirsch and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.