Published July 29, 2013
DALLAS – From Six Flags to Walt Disney World, there's no federal oversight of permanent amusement parks, and regulations vary from state to state.
The death of a woman who fell 75 feet from Six Flags Over Texas' Texas Giant roller coaster is reinvigorating discussion among safety experts about whether it's time to create more consistent, stringent regulations for thrill rides across the nation.
"A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour," Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat, said in a statement this week. As a congressman, Markey tried for years to have the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission — which oversees mobile carnival rides — regulate fixed-site amusement parks.
But a spokeswoman with the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions countered that the trade group believes state officials "are best able to determine the level of regulation needed for their state."
In Texas, the Department of Insurance requires that an amusement park's insurance company perform a yearly inspection and carry $1 million liability insurance on each ride, agency spokesman Jerry Hagins said. Six Flags Over Texas was in compliance with those rules at the time of Rose Ayala-Goana's July 19 fatal fall from the wooden coaster with steel rails that features a drop of 79 degrees and banked turns.
Six Flags Entertainment Corp. President and CEO Jim Reid-Anderson has said it's using "both internal and external experts" to investigate Ayala-Goana's death in Arlington. An official with the German manufacturer of the roller coaster's car told The Dallas Morning News they would send officials to inspect the ride, but referred all questions The Associated Press might have to Six Flags.
The park doesn't need to submit a report to the state on what caused her to fall, and while Arlington police are also looking into the death, they aren't investigating the ride.
"The question is: Will they release it and will it be complete and comprehensive?" said Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety analyst who owns KRM Consulting of Richmond, Va. "There's a lot of unanswered questions and because of the way it is in Texas we might not ever have the answer to those questions."
Walter S. Reiss, an amusement ride safety inspector based in Bethlehem, Pa., agreed: "When it comes time for an accident it sure would be nice if the state would be that omniscient third party to come in and do that investigation."
Martin noted that both the stringency of inspection regulations and which entity oversees those inspections vary across the country.
"In some states you have the Department of Agriculture, some states you have the Department of Labor. In Texas it's the Department of Insurance. In Virginia it happens to be the local building inspector," Martin said.
An annual inspection that's submitted to Texas would check everything from the structure's wood and foundation to the cars and its wheels, as well as a review of the maintenance records, he said. It's also typical in the industry for the park's maintenance staff to inspect a ride daily, he said.
After an injury that requires medical attention and is possibly due to equipment failure, structural failure or operator error, Texas parks must shut down the ride and re-inspect it. The Texas Giant has been closed since Ayana-Goala's death and won't re-open until the department sees a new safety inspection report, Hagins said.
Amusement park trade group spokeswoman Colleen Mangone said 44 state governments regulate parks. The six without state oversight — Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah — have few amusement parks, if any, she said.
"There is no evidence that federal oversight would improve on the already excellent safety record of the industry," she said, noting the association's statistics show the likelihood of being seriously injured is 1 in 24 million; for dying, it's 1 in 750 million.
"Safety is the number one priority for the amusement park industry and events like the one at Six Flags Over Texas are rare," she wrote, adding that ride manufacturer guidelines might require additional inspections beyond daily ones.
Mangone said the statistics come from an injury survey done for the trade group by the National Safety Council, though just 144 of the 383 eligible amusement parks provided some or all of the requested data.
Experts say getting reliable figures on injuries at amusement parks can be difficult.
"We don't know if they are indeed what the park says they are," Martin said. "We have to take their word for it."
Even sorting through emergency room data for a recent study on amusement ride injuries in those 17 and under was difficult, said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"We had to actually painstakingly go through and look at every case to see whether it was a true ride or not," said Smith, who was an author on the study published in Clinical Pediatrics in May.
"Knowing how many millions of people use (large theme parks) each year, they have a good safety record but there's always room for improvement and one of the ways that you can do that is have a good handle on where the injuries are occurring and how they're occurring," Smith said.
Voluntary standards for amusement park rides are issued by ASTM International, a global organization that draws from, among others, industry professionals. Martin said some states have adopted those standards into law.
"The amusement park industry is self-regulated and that's what the amusement industry wants," Martin said.