Roller Coaster Regulation

Federal safety busybodies turn their sights on amusement parks


One would think the federal government had plenty to do, busy as it is writing regulations on the proper temperature for egg transportation and delivering two-day mail in four days. Still, there are always those who want to further burden our busy bureaucrats with responsibilities.

See, for example, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) chairwoman Ann Brown who announced in April 2000 that "the problem remains: There is no federal oversight over fixed-site rides."

"Fixed site rides" is regulatory lingo for the rides at permanent amusement parks such as Disneyland, Six Flags, or Paramount's Great America. The CPSC spends $50 million each year regulating 15,000 products, from coffee makers to hedge trimmers. It publicizes such revered national holidays as Older Americans Month and Electrical Safety Month (both celebrated in May, as it turns out—a busy month indeed). It reminds us to "practice safety and common sense when working in [our] yards." It tracks scooter accidents and fatalities. (Eight people have died while riding scooters so far this year.) Yet its authority ends where the gates of the Magic Kingdom begin. (Traveling carnivals are already in the CPSC's thrall.)

"A Tilt-a-Whirl that's subject to regulatory oversight one day might be exempt the next day following a change of ownership," declares the deeply concerned Kathy Fackler on her Web site. Fackler and the CPSC's Brown think something must be done. A gaggle of congressmen, led by Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), agree. They're backing the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act of 2001, which would give the CPSC authority to inspect and regulate all carnival rides, however sedentary. The bill would budget $500,000 for the task. The CPSC says it needs 10 times that amount—which would amount to a 10 percent budget boost for the whole agency.

This issue isn't new. But it has gotten more attention since 1999, when four people died at amusement parks during a five day period. The would-be-roller coaster regulators point to a CPSC study that shows ride injuries up 85 percent in four years. "Ride-related fatalities" had been pretty steady at around two a year for most of the past decade, reports The Washington Post, but rose to six in 1999. Markey, Brown, and others fret that there's no federal system, only a "patchwork of inconsistent regulations," to deal with the accidents. "It is shocking to realize that one-third of all roller coasters in this country are never inspected by any public safety official at all," said Markey upon introducing his bill.

That's not quite true. Each roller coaster in the country is inspected regularly. In some states, state officials do the inspecting. In others, such as Florida, state-certified private inspectors poke around the rides. Every park has to answer to some form of independent examination and report to either a state or municipal government, says the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), the industry's DC representative. Parks are privately insured, and the underwriters of risk are not cavalier about safety. California's 60 roller coasters are on the list of the non-inspected, yet the state has already passed a law to change that. Some states, such as North Dakota and Montana, don't regulate parks because they don't have any parks to regulate. Go figure. Other states, such as Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, and South Dakota, have very few parks.

IAAPA disputes the accident data, noting that they are estimates based on a survey of emergency rooms, and that a change in the rooms surveyed accounted for the dramatic increase. They correctly point out that children are safer in the park than in their family cars on the way to the park. They also point out that other forms of recreation—scooters and golf, for example—account for more accidents and injuries than their clients' rides.

Independent analysts also have doubts about the study. "The margin of error estimates are plus or minus 25 percent, which means there may have been as many as 13,000 or as few as 7,000 total injuries from fixed and traveling rides," says Howard Fienberg, a research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a DC-based non-profit watchdog for the misuse of statistics in journalism and public policy debates. "That's an awful range. It's what we in the business call a WAG—Wild Ass Guess."

Strangely, there's evidence that the federal government's non-regulation of roller coasters is among its most cost-efficient safety programs. Markey's office broke down fatalities per 100 million passenger miles for cars, roller coasters, trains, airlines, and buses. The feds—that is, we taxpayers—spend $360 million a year on auto safety, yet 0.92 people still die for each 100 million passenger miles. The feds spend nothing on roller coasters, and yet only 0.61 people die over the same metric. While federal non-action isn't doing much to get the mail delivered, in the field of consumer safety it might be the ideal solution.