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After numerous amusement park disasters, is the industry safe?

Posted at 12:21 AM, Aug 12, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. -- Bad things certainly happen in clusters, and for the past couple months amusement park rides have been in the news for being much more horrifying than we'd like.

Thursday, a 3-year-old child fell out of a roller coaster in Pennsylvania and suffered head and chest injuries, according to news reports.

Sunday in a waterpark in Kansas City, 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was decapitated while riding what was billed as the world's tallest waterslide.

On Monday, three girls fell out of a Ferris wheel and were injured at the Greensville, Tenn., County Fair.

And in May, an 11-year-old girl was basically scalped when her hair got caught in an Omaha, Nebraska carnival ride.

"Let me say this about Virginia," said Ken Martin, a Virginia-based amusement ride safety analyst and consultant, "we're very lucky and very fortunate we haven't had a fatality recently. We have had incidents, we have people seriously injured."

At the 2002 Powhatan County Fair, for example nine people were injured - none seriously - when the "Way Out" swing ride toppled, according to news reports at the time. That traveling ride was operated by a Tennessee couple.

"We need uniform regulation across the board," Martin said. "It has to be the same standard in Virginia as it is in North Carolina as it is in West Virginia, so that we're all on the same page and that information has to be recorded and shared so it's available if a ride leaves Virginia and goes to Kansas or a ride leaves Kansas and goes to California."

The Outdoor Amusement Business Association estimates some two million-plus annual riders with roughly 2,000 to 3,500 injuries per year and an average of less than one fatality. It's far safer, the association says on its website, than most recreational activities, such as bicycling.

But how complete are those numbers?

The apparently more dangerous inflatable rides, such as bounce tents, don't appear to be counted in the totals. Some accidents are self-reported, Martin said.

"Believe it or not, nobody keeps track of that," he said of the complete injury totals for the nation.

While many amusement parks have their own inspectors, the industry is far from uniform.

In Virginia, for example, local building inspectors are tasked with checking the rides.

"You have basically 130 different ways to interpret the set of standards," Martin said.

Other states rely on insurance inspections and local reviews of those inspections.

Martin said many operations are family businesses, striving to provide a good and safe product - and one that keeps them out of civil court.

But he stressed there needs to be a uniform oversight and inspection process that leaves no doubt about what's being checked and who's doing it.

"If we did amusement ride safety like we did OSHA," Martin said. "There wouldn't be a problem."

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