Thrill Ride Accidents Renew Calls For Regulation

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 26, 2016 6:34 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Here's a story about a lack of regulation. It has to do with the world's tallest water slide which is located in Kansas. A child was killed on the slide earlier this month. And the slide has been operating for two years, but neither the state nor the federal government has ever inspected it for safety. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: When the 17-story water slide called Verruckt went up two years ago in Kansas City, Kan., there was lots of fanfare in part because it seemed so dangerous. This video, broadcast on "Good Morning America," shows test rafts with sandbag dummies sailing off an early version of the ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tipped over and killed every sandbag in there.

MORRIS: The designer and park's owner tamed the geometry of the ride and put a net over it, and Verruckt was a huge success until earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are saddened to share that a young boy died on Verruckt this afternoon.

MORRIS: Ten-year-old Caleb Schwab, the son of a Kansas state representative, was decapitated on the slide, possibly by the late-edition safety net meant to keep him on it.

ED MARKEY: I thought that history was repeating itself.

MORRIS: Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey has long pushed for federal oversight of amusement rides.

MARKEY: A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of a hundred miles per hour.

MORRIS: The federal government regulates traveling carnival rides but not fixed amusement parks. It used to until 1981 when an amendment to an appropriations bill changed the law. States regulate parks, and some states are very strict about it but not all.

Kansas requires operators to get annual inspections, but rarely audits for compliance. This huge water slide required a county zoning waiver and structural tests but no governmental sign-off on the ride's basic safety. Amusement park consultant Ken Martin says some states are even more lax.

KEN MARTIN: There's, you know, no type of oversight. There's no type of penalty if they're doing something wrong.

MORRIS: So Martin joins Senator Markey in calling for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to resume amusement park regulation after a 35-year hiatus. But Paul Noland says that's just not necessary. Noland heads the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

PAUL NOLAND: There's no evidence at all that federal oversight would improve on this already outstanding track record the industry has.

MORRIS: No one publishes completely reliable figures, but amusement park deaths are rare. David Collins designs thrill rides and says safety is just good business.

DAVID COLLINS: There's no profit in killing people. There's no profit in hurting people.

MORRIS: What's more, Collins says amusement park operators cannot get insurance unless they prove that their rides are built and maintained according to strict, comprehensive codes.

COLLINS: The standard says if you own and operate an amusement ride, thou shalt do these things on a daily basis before you open to the public. And you have to keep them in your logbook.

MORRIS: An organization called ASTM International sets those protocols. ASTM writes widely accepted standards for hundreds of industries across the globe. And ASTM, staff manager Katarina Koperna says amusement rides get very close scrutiny.

KATERINA KOPERNA: Every inch of that seat that you get in, every piece of mechanical equipment - the hydraulics, the oil, the screw, the bolts, the this, the that - they are looking at every single thing. And there are 900-plus people doing that same exact thing.

MORRIS: That's right. More than 900 scientists, engineers, park operators and safety advocates write and continually refine amusement ride safety standards. Still, Nancy Cowles, who runs the group Kids in Danger, says federal oversight is necessary to compel all park operators to follow those standards.

NANCY COWLES: I've worked on many issues over my time in consumer safety, and almost every industry group tells us that. Don't you worry. We're taking care of this. And then we find out that in fact that's not the case.

MORRIS: In Kansas, the water slide remains closed as investigators pore over the accident. The governor wants to look at reassessing the state's thrill ride regulations. Senator Markey and others say Caleb Schwab's death may reinvigorate the push for federal oversight. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.