Regulation: Leaping to Conclusions


Adina, a pretty blonde college student and part-time model, is on a Studs date. She says she wanted to do "something different." That's why she's standing in a manure-scented field in Nuevo, a small town in Riverside County, California, early on a Sunday morning. Now she may be wishing that she and her date had driven up to Santa Barbara or cruised out to Catalina instead. She is smoking to calm herself down. "I'm so scared," she says repeatedly.

There are about 10 customers, including three couples, all in their 20s, all first-time jumpers. We make nervous jokes as we report our weights, sign the forbidding liability waivers, and put on the harnesses. As it turns out, Adina will jump last, so she has plenty of time to worry. I get to go first.

The employees of Jumpin' Joe Bungee hook my waist and shoulder harnesses to a set of three elastic cords, each about half an inch thick; the other end is attached to the basket of the hot-air balloon. I get in, and co-owner Alan Trull blasts the torch several times, until we are about 250 feet up, tethered to a van on one side and a pickup truck on the other. At Trull's signal, I climb out of the basket and onto the little wooden platform in front of it. The cords are between my legs, and I am facing the basket, hanging on to avoid falling prematurely. He calls out, "Countdown! Three, two, one—BUNGEE," and I leap back.

If you watch my jump on the videotape (free with the ad from the L.A. Weekly), you will hear a collection of shouts and screams as I leave the balloon. Some of them may be mine. As I plunge 150 feet, until the cords are fully extended, my body is convinced it's going to die. For a moment I am motionless. Then I shoot up about 100 feet and fall again. I am laughing, so this must be fun.

After I stop bouncing, Trull brings the balloon down, and I land on my feet. The guy with the camera asks for my impressions. "Pretty cool," I say. "But it was too short." Although a bungee jump is much more intense than a roller-coaster ride, it's over a lot sooner. It's also expensive: Jumpin' Joe Bungee, which is based in Moreno Valley, charges $79 for a balloon jump, $59 for a pair of 100-foot bridge jumps. But if someone else picked up the tab, I'd gladly do it again.

Now let me explain why I'm not crazy. Bungee jumping is a lot safer than it might seem. There have been well over 1 million bungee jumps in the United States since the first commercial operation opened in 1988. During that time, there have been two fatal incidents and about a dozen other accidents that resulted in serious injuries. That record makes bungee jumping less risky than many sports, including skydiving, rock climbing, water skiing, and even roller skating. In fact, jumping from that balloon was less dangerous than driving from Los Angeles to Nuevo and back.

Still, bungee jumping tends to provoke extreme reactions. The people I've talked to seem to be divided into three groups: those who would jump at the chance; those who understand the appeal but think it's too scary; and those who can't imagine why anyone would want to do such a foolish thing. Unfortunately, a lot of people with that third attitude are in positions of power. A fatal bungee accident in Michigan last summer has set off a flurry of regulation, including temporary bans in Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Now an industry that has been growing by leaps and bounds during the last few years—from about 10 operators nationwide in 1989 to hundreds today—is threatened by an uncertain legal climate. "I can't even guess what they're going to do next," says Trull, co-owner of Jumpin' Joe Bungee. "One day it's illegal, the next day it's no….It's like spinning a wheel. What are they going to land on?" The regulations are unpredictable largely because they're driven by isolated events. Rather than assessing the hazards of bungee jumping realistically, regulators and legislators are acting on fear and misinformation.

In a sense, this is understandable. "The perceived risk is very high because it's so visual," says John Wilkinson, secretary of the North American Bungee Association and owner of Total Rebound in Napa. "The media go crazy. They get this video image of a guy falling….It's very sensational." It doesn't help that many Americans were introduced to the sport by a 1990 Reebok commercial that shows a Nike-wearing bungee jumper plunging to his death.

Because bungee jumping is still relatively new, its mishaps attract a lot of attention. The U.S. Parachute Association reports that about 30 skydivers are killed each year in North America, which is 1.2 deaths per 100,000 jumps, at least five times the death rate for bungee jumping. About 10 percent of skydivers suffer injuries requiring medical attention—thousands of times the serious-injury rate for bungee jumping. But skydiving accidents are old hat, so they don't prompt legislation, and they don't get covered by 20/20 or A Closer Look with Faith Daniels.

Furthermore, since bungee jumping is unfamiliar, people tend to assume that accidents occur because the sport is inherently dangerous. A closer look at the deaths and injuries associated with bungee jumping casts doubt on that assumption. Of 11 serious accidents that have been investigated by the North American Bungee Association, all but a few involved employees of bungee operations. This is partly because employees take risks that customers do not. As Carl Finocchiaro, chairman of NABA's Safety Committee, puts it: "Employees at sites tend to partake in experimental activities." These may include acrobatics, tandem jumps, using weights to enhance the bounce, and reverse jumps, in which you spring into the air after being held on the ground while a crane pulls your cords taut.

The two fatal incidents, both of which involved employees, did not result from such stunts, but the circumstances were very unusual. The first fatality, which occurred in California in October 1991, was caused by a hookup error so glaring that the coroner's office could not decide whether the death was an accident or a suicide. The second fatality, in Michigan last July, resulted from the combination of a crane operator's error—he raised a basket instead of lowering it—and a defect in a mechanism that should have stopped the basket from going too high. It's doubtful that regulation would have prevented either of these deaths. In fact, the Michigan bungee operation was regulated; after the accident, the state Department of Labor fined Dore's Bungee Blast $154,000 for 21 violations of occupational-safety standards.

Both deaths prompted responses from state legislators representing the victims' districts. After the California incident, state Assemblyman Paul Horcher (R–Whittier) introduced a law that codifies the permitting process established by state regulators in April 1991, including an insurance requirement. After the Michigan accident, state Sen. George Hart (D–Dearborn) said he would push for a ban on bungee jumping.

But the most significant fallout from the Michigan accident so far has been in Florida. Last July, the state's commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, Bob Crawford, imposed a 90-day ban on bungee jumping. "They'd had no accidents or injuries in Florida," says Wilkinson, NABA's secretary. "And because of an accident they didn't know anything about in Michigan, they said all bungee jumping is to be halted. That was hours after this accident occurred in Michigan."

Crawford was initially determined to make the ban permanent. But he has since backed off, following criticism from the press and complaints from bungee operators, who had to close down in the middle of their busiest season. "We were taken by surprise," says Thomas J. Woodard, president of Utah-based Air Boingo, which had two bungee towers operating in Florida and one under construction. "We lost quite a bit of revenue….We were pretty upset."

In August, Crawford lifted the ban and replaced it with what he proudly called "the most stringent bungee safety code in place anywhere in the world." Among other things, the new rules ban ankle jumps, balloon jumps (also banned in Massachusetts), and any other jumps of more than 100 feet. They require operators to cover the entire area over which a jumper might swing with an air bag certified for the height of the jump. (These cost $25,000 to $50,000. Most bungee operators do not use air bags; they rely instead on extra cords and connections for added safety.) Operators also have to fence off an area sufficiently large to allow the jumping platform to fall over on its side. These regulations are likely to drive many operators out of business and raise the prices charged by those that remain.

Woodard says the fencing requirement is pointless: If you have an engineer certify your equipment, which Florida also requires, it's not going to tip over. He also objects to a warning sign that all bungee operators in the state now have to display. The sign shows a jumper plunging to the ground after his cord breaks, next to a picture of someone in a wheelchair. Yet bungee cords are very durable; depending upon their thickness, they can support weights of 1,400 to 4,500 pounds. Furthermore, bungee operators generally retire the cords after several hundred jumps, well before they're worn out. Consequently, the cords don't snap. "It's never happened," Woodard says.

State regulators, especially in Florida, would like bungee jumping to be as safe as a merry-go-round. "When a government is seen as responsible because they have to license something, and they have to be in the position of saying something's safe, that's where the regulations are coming from," Woodard says. Once bungee jumping has been pigeonholed as an "amusement ride," risks smaller than those readily accepted in a wide variety of sports suddenly seem excessive.

In the long run, Woodard may actually stand to benefit from a regulatory crackdown. Air Boingo's 21 towers in the United States and Canada—some of which are joint ventures or franchises—are only 75 feet high, and they're specifically designed for bungee jumping. They include a mechanised pulley system to raise and lower customers, and underneath each tower is a 10-foot-high air bag. Unlike balloon, crane, or bridge jumps, the Air Boingo system is already pretty close to an amusement-park ride. The price is relatively cheap as well: about $25 for the first jump. Woodard says his version of bungee jumping is aimed at families rather than twentysomething thrill seekers.

When I arrive at the Air Boingo tower in the Fiesta Village amusement park near Riverside, fresh from my balloon jump, a man in his 60s is bouncing on the single, wrist-thick cord. (Just before I leave, a married couple comes in with two boys, about 8 and 10.) The supervisor, Chris Deveau, weighs me and watches as I put on the body harness. I follow him up the enclosed metal stairs of the tower, and he hooks my harness to the appropriate cord. He opens the safety gate, and I leap forward—which, I discover, is scarier than going backward. The jump is better than I expected: A nice rush, a few bounces, and I'm lowered to the air bag, where another employee disconnects me. Very efficient.

Deveau is enthusiastic about the Air Boingo system, and he describes all its safety advantages in detail. He suggests it's the wave of the future. I note that a lot of people, perhaps most, will be satisfied with the tower jump, but some will still prefer jumping from a balloon, bridge, or crane, just as some people prefer whitewater rafting to a water ride at an amusement park. Shouldn't they be allowed the choice?

Despite his salesmanship, Deveau agrees. He can understand why some people resist the attempt to tame bungee jumping. He happens to be a rock climber.

Jacob Sullum is associate editor of REASON.