Who regulates our nation's roller coasters?

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May 17 2005 7:30 PM

Who Regulates Our Nation's Amusement Parks?

And what's the "roller coaster loophole"?

Safety last? Click image to expand.
Safety last?

The manager of the Rockin' Raceway amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., was found guilty of reckless homicide on Monday in the case of a woman who fell to her death from a high-flying attraction called "The Hawk." In response, a state lawmaker has proposed instituting mandatory inspections for amusement park rides in Tennessee. Who makes sure amusement park rides are safe?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Federal, state, and local governments, along with the amusement park industry itself. The federal government only issues regulations for rides that aren't fixed in a permanent location, like those in small, traveling carnivals, while states can regulate rides that are fixed in place, like those at the Rockin' Raceway. Owners and manufacturers also subscribe to a set of voluntary industry-safety standards set out by the nonprofit ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials).

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Most states have special laws to ensure the safety of amusement park goers. Many license amusement park ride owner-operators and require them to have at least six-figure liability insurance. Some states also perform equipment inspections (sometimes for a fee), require daily equipment tests, and set forth rules about staffing. (For example, operators might have to be more than 16 years old, and they might be required to operate no more than one machine at a time.)

As a general rule, bigger amusement parks have more independence than smaller ones. The state of Florida, for example, inspects all permanent rides, unless the company that runs the park employs more than 1,000 people—an exemption that leaves out self-policing amusement parks like Disney World, Busch Gardens, and Universal Studios.

Amusement parks first appeared in the United States in the late 19th century. The first state to regulate rides was Wyoming, in 1929, but most others didn't follow suit until the 1960s or later. With the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1973, the federal government began to monitor rides as well.

The amusement park industry resisted CPSC oversight from the outset, on the grounds that an amusement park ride was not a "consumer product," since a consumer couldn't actually obtain it or control it. The courts rejected this argument in 1977, when the Feds sued the Chance Manufacturing Co. for its faulty Zipper ride after door-lock failures led to four deaths in four separate accidents.

But the debate resurfaced in 1981, when two more cases yielded different conclusions about the limits of CPSC oversight. Congress stepped in with new legislation that year. An amendment to the language of the Consumer Product Safety Act was bundled in with a budget bill: The new version gave the federal government explicit permission to regulate temporary rides, but the so-called "roller-coaster loophole" excluded fixed and permanent attractions from the rules.

Lawmakers in Washington have tried to restore the CPSC's jurisdiction on several occasions. Most recently, Massachusetts representative Ed Markey has made amusement park ride safety a personal crusade. The latest version of his National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act will be introduced for the fourth time later this week.

In the last few years, a growing number of states have passed "rider safety" or "rider responsibility" laws that place some of the burden for avoiding amusement park accidents on consumers, as opposed to operators. According to these, a guest at an amusement park might be legally obligated to obey posted rules, keep his or her arms inside the seating area, and otherwise refrain from dangerous behavior. (The industry contends that most accidents result from stupid behavior; to a certain extent, the laws serve to reduce owner liability.) So far, rider safety laws have been adopted in 25 states.