Emergency rooms saw an estimated 30,000 injuries linked to amusement parks in 2016, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. But experts warn that data about amusement park safety is limited, and regulations are inconsistent.
This week, one person was killed and seven more were injured after a ride malfunctioned at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. On Wednesday, the opening day of the fair, a piece of the Fire Ball ride broke apart mid-air. All seven people injured were taken to area hospitals for treatment.
In 2016, a 10-year-old boy was killed on a water slide in Kansas. Three girls were also injured in 2016 at a fair in Tennessee after falling from a Ferris wheel.
A man died in Ohio in 2015 after jumping over a fence in a restricted area and being struck by a roller coaster. A similar incident happened at a Georgia Six Flags park in 2008. And in 2007, a teenager lost both of her feet after a ride malfunction at a Kentucky Six Flags park.
In a statement sent to CNN, the International Association for Amusement Parks said that while approximately 335 million people visit amusement parks in the United States each year, the likelihood of sustaining a serious injury at an amusement park that would lead to an overnight stay at a hospital is one in 16 million.
The amusement park association conducts an annual safety survey, the most recent of which was published in 2016. Of the parks from which the association collected data, it estimated that in 2015 there were 1,508 ride-related injuries among park attendees who went on rides. That’s an increase of 32% since 2014, when there were 1,146 ride-related injuries. No data on fatalities were reported.
However, the International Association for Amusement Parks only collects safety data on fixed-site amusement parks — locations where the rides are permanent fixtures — and not on amusement parks that move from location to location. Those mobile amusement parks include carnival and state fairs, such as the one in Ohio.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports it estimates that in 2016, emergency room departments saw 30,900 injuries associated with amusement attractions, including rides, for both mobile and fixed-site parks. This number is an estimate extrapolated from emergency room data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and is not an exact count.
The commission said it is aware of 22 deaths since 2010 associated with amusement attractions, including the fatality this week at the Ohio State Fair. This number excludes fatalities at water parks or water slides.
Tracy Mehan, translational research manager at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, believes a coordinated federal effort to collect data is needed to ensure safety at amusement parks.
“Right now it is hard to get a clear picture of what is happening because there is a patchwork system of regulation and enforcement,” said Mehan, who conducted a 2013 study on child injuries at amusement parks. “We need a national injury reporting system for all mobile and fixed-site rides that will allow for better surveillance and consistent enforcement of standards.”
“There’s no mechanism for the parks themselves or the ride manufacturers to report injuries or mechanical failures to any organization,” she said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees the regulation of mobile amusement parks. But, it’s up to the individual state or locality to decide who is responsible for inspections of the mobile parks. For fixed-site amusement parks, there is not one body nationally that oversees regulation — instead that is left to state and local governments. Several states do not regulate amusement parks at all.
“Back in the early ’80s, our authority to oversee fixed-site rides was taken away from us,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported previously. “We do deal with mobile rides, like those at local carnivals, but we are a small agency, and it’s tough to oversee every fair that sets up for a short period of time.”
An Ohio state inspection official said the Fire Ball ride at the Ohio State Fair was inspected multiple times before riders boarded it on Wednesday and no red flags were found.
“It’s been looked at about three or four times over the course of two days,” said Michael Vartorella, chief ride inspector for Ohio’s Division of Amusement Ride Safety. He said that on Wednesday, “it was inspected at a couple of different stages and it was signed off.”
Walter Reiss, an independent amusement ride safety inspector, told HLN’s Michaela Pereira on Friday that once mobile rides are assembled at their location, they usually have only a visual inspection. He also said that rides may be assessed for damages using non-destructive testing, but the frequency and the parts inspected are usually dictated by the manufacturer.
“Generally, when you’re inspecting on-site when it’s been re-erected after just being moved, you’re doing mainly a visual inspection,” said Reiss. “You can require the non-destructive testing if you see something that’s suspect. But generally, the non-destructive testing through using the X-ray, the mag-particle, the ultrasound, that’s gonna be something you’re going to do only when it’s disassembled in a shop somewhere.”
Investigators from the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are currently looking into why the Fire Ball malfunctioned.
In a statement from Amusements of America, the Fire Ball ride’s operator, the organization said it is cooperating with the investigation: “Our family-owned company is committed to working with state and local experts in trying to determine the cause of this tragic accident.”
If people choose to ride amusement park rides, there are several guidelines to keep in mind for safety, especially for children.
• Always follow all posted height, age, weight and health restrictions.
• Make sure to follow any special seating order and/or loading instructions.
• Always use safety equipment such as seat belts and safety bars.
• Make sure children keep hands and feet inside the ride at all times.
• Know your child. If you don’t think he/she will be able to follow the rules, keep him/her off the ride.
• Trust your instincts. If you are worried about the safety of the ride, choose a different activity.
• Avoid “mall rides” if they are over a hard, unpadded surface or if they don’t have a child restraint, such as a seat belt.
“Many parents either assume that the rides at amusement parks are safe and that they’re being inspected, or they don’t even stop to think about how safe they might be,” said Mehan. “So we want parents to learn in their state how rides are being inspected, by whom, and how often, so they can make the decision for themselves whether or not they want to take that risk before they go on the ride.”