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On Roller Coasters and Regulation

August 28, 2013

In May of this year, we posted an article about the surprising prevalence of injuries to children at amusement parks. In the first study of its kind, a team of researchers based in Columbus, Ohio estimate that nearly 4500 children under the age of eighteen are injured on amusement park rides each year. The attractions in question “included anything from coin-operated rides to Ferris wheels, carousels, bumper cars, roller coasters, and any type of ride like that.” An additional article in Smithsonian claims that the most common of these injuries are to the head and neck; ten percent (about 450 annually) involve broken bones and six percent require overnight hospital stays. While these relatively tame attractions injure thousands a year, roller coaster parks like the Six Flags chain present a risk of even more serious accidents.

Earlier this summer, 52-year-old Dallas woman Rosa Irene Ayala-Gaona died after falling more than 70 feet from her roller coaster car at Six Flags Over Texas. According to legal blog, roller coaster rides are based upon outdated models of rider weight (the average weight of adult males in this country has risen by about thirty pounds over the last three decades). This presents a serious risk. Heavier riders means more stress on machinery, including restraint bars and belts. One roller coaster safety expert claims most seats and restraints are designed to accommodate riders that weigh around 180 pounds.

The authors of the Columbus, Ohio-based pediatric study lament, “Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over mobile rides, regulation of fixed-site rides is currently left to state or local governments, leading to a fragmented system […] A coordinated national system would help us prevent amusement ride-related injuries through better injury surveillance and more consistent enforcement of standards.”

This is the case in Texas as well, where there is such a dearth of relevant legislation that no investigation has been conducted. There is simply no authority whose job it is to investigate cases like this. Apparently, the only safety measures required of parks in Texas is passing one safety inspection a year and proving that it has at least a million dollars in liability insurance. ThePopTort adds that at least seventeen states lack state agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of amusement park rides.

Members of congress have noted this serious and dangerous lack of oversight and regulation: Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts points out, “A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour. This is a mistake.”

In Pennsylvania, amusement parks have a reputation for vigorously defending all personal injury lawsuits to create a zero sum game for attorneys who file these legitimate cases.  Well-paid large law firms will fight a war of attrition with plaintiff’s counsel rather than resolve to make their parks safer and resolve the meritorious claims.

Pennsylvania parks are notorious for warning signs, which, they contend, immunizes them from liability for their negligent inspections and maintenance of rides: “The rides in this park have been inspected as required by the Pennsylvania Amusement Ride Inspection Act.” As mentioned earlier, the thoroughness of these inspections is a point of contention for watchdog groups, due especially to the lack of a clearly designated agency whose job it is to ensure the safety of such parks.


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