California Research Bureau, California State Library

Safety and Oversight of Amusement Rides in California

By Dennis O'Connor and Jennifer Swenson

August 1997 CRB-97-012


Whenever a serious accident occurs at an amusement park, it is natural to ask "Who's in charge?" and "How safe are the rides?" This report investigates three issues: 1) the accident data for amusement rides, 2) the regulation of amusement ride safety in California, and 3) how other states regulate ride safety.

CONTENTS
Introduction
Organization of Report
Amusement Ride Accidents
Data Availability is Limited
Injuries from Amusement Rides
Deaths from Amusement Rides
Waterparks
Waterslide Collapses
Data Problems and Risk Assessment
Amusement Ride Laws & Regulations
California
Brief History
Current California Laws
Insurance Company Requirements & Industry Standards
Other States
History of States' Legislation
Oversight Programs
Inspections, Permits, and Licenses
Insurance
Ride Operator Guidelines
Conclusions

Appendix A -- Evolution of California's Amusement Rides Safety Laws

Appendix B -- Regulation in the 50 States and District of Columbia

Endnotes -- Endnotes

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

According to the latest estimates, California has 71 permanent amusement parks, 74 carnival owners/operators, and an untold number of other businesses that have one or more permanent rides.1 Six of the 15 most attended amusement parks in North America are in California.2 However, California also has a sizable number of small or seasonal parks: 58 percent of the state's amusement parks employ less than 20 persons.3 Given the large number of amusement parks, many people are surprised to discover that California is one of only 10 states that does not have specific state oversight over permanent amusement parks or rides.4

On June 2, 1996, one teenager died and 32 others were injured when a section of a waterslide ripped apart at the seams and collapsed. Following the accident at Waterworld USA's Concord park, many people have questions about if and how the state of California should regulate permanent amusement rides. To help answer these questions, Assembly Members Tom Torlakson and Valerie Brown asked the California Research Bureau to answer the following three questions:

  1. What are the accident data on permanent amusement park rides?

  2. What are California's laws regarding regulation of amusement park rides, and why are they the way they are?

  3. What do other states do to ensure ride safety?

The purpose of this report is to answer those questions.

Organization of Report

This paper is organized in two parts. First, we discuss the amusement ride accident data. We attempt to answer questions such as:

Next we describe the amusement ride laws and regulations. We start with California's amusement ride safety laws. After a brief history of California's laws, we describe California's current laws and regulations. Then, we describe how other states regulate amusement ride safety. Again, we start with a brief history of amusement ride safety laws -- from a national perspective. Then we provide an overview of how other states approach the ride safety issue.

Finally, we draw some conclusions.

We have also included two appendices. Appendix A is a more thorough accounting of the evolution of laws affecting California's amusement rides. Appendix B presents greater detail on how each of the states and the District of Columbia regulates amusement rides.

AMUSEMENT RIDE ACCIDENTS

Whenever one hears of a serious or fatal accident associated with an amusement ride, it is natural to ask, "How many people are hurt on amusement rides each year?" Unfortunately, the answer is, "Well, we aren't very sure, but we don't think it is a lot."

The difficulty is that there is no comprehensive source for amusement ride accident data. No federal law or national agency requires all ride operators in every state to file accident reports. Similarly, no California law requires all ride operators -- both permanent and mobile rides -- to report all accidents to the state. Nationally, most regulated parks are required to report accidents to their regulating state agency and/or their insurance company. However, the reporting requirements are not uniform and the information is generally not available to the public. As a result, it is impossible to obtain accurate and complete accident data.

Nonetheless, some information is available. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) does have jurisdiction over mobile rides, as well as a general interest in overall ride safety. Also, most catastrophic accidents receive media coverage. Thus, there is generally enough information to provide a broad sense of amusement ride safety and a more specific sense of catastrophic risk.

Data Availability is Limited

Nationally, the CPSC maintains the most comprehensive data on amusement ride accidents. They document amusement ride fatalities and estimate amusement ride injuries.5 CPSC numbers are widely quoted by industry associations. Industry analysts use these data along with their own estimates of park attendance to estimate the likelihood of amusement ride accidents. Likewise, the industry uses CPSC data to measure the safety of the industry as a whole. CPSC numbers are also frequently included in states' reports and other amusement ride safety studies.

States with amusement ride oversight usually maintain statewide accident data. Some states publish detailed information while others do not. Nonetheless, regulators in most states with oversight can describe the general safety of amusement rides in their state even if specific numbers are not available.

Limited, if any, information is available from states with no oversight. In California, for example, the Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) collects accident reports about mobile rides -- such as those at traveling carnivals or county fairs. However, as explained in the next section, no state agency has oversight of permanent parks. Consequently, the state does not collect accident data from these parks. Insurance companies collect data from their insured, but they do not make the data publicly available. Newspaper accounts usually reveal accidents involving serious injury or death, but other accidents are often unreported.

Injuries from Amusement Rides

Data on non-fatal injuries are difficult to obtain and often do not exist. Many states and insurance companies do not require ride operators to report minor injuries. The CPSC estimates injuries based on surveys of hospital emergency rooms. While these estimates probably capture most serious injuries, the actual number of total injuries is likely to be higher. Many minor injuries do not require a trip to the emergency room and may instead be treated with first aid at the site, at home, or at a doctor's office.

For 1996, the CPSC estimated that 8,300 non-occupational injuries occurred on amusement rides, up from their estimate for 1995 of 7,500. Of the 1996 injuries, they estimated about 2,900 involved mobile-site rides, 4,200 involved fixed-site rides, and 1,200 involved rides at unknown sites. (See Table 1). The CPSC estimates that 1.4 percent of the injuries required an overnight hospital stay.

 

Table 1

U.S. Amusement Ride Injuries in 1996

Ride Site

Estimate

Percent

Fixed

4,224

51%

Mobile

2,921

35%

Unknown

1,189

14%

Total

8,335

100%

Source: C. Craig Morris, Deaths and Injuries Associated With Amusement Rides, Consumer Product Safety Commission, May 9, 1997.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) estimates that each year in the United States there are approximately 500 million visits to ride facilities6 and billions of rides taken. Using CPSC's injury estimates and assuming two rides per visitor, they report the odds of being injured seriously enough to be hospitalized are about one in seven million.

Deaths from Amusement Rides

Data on deaths associated with amusement rides are more precise and easier to obtain than are data on injuries. The CPSC documents actual deaths -- their fatality data are not estimates.7 The CPSC reports 102 non-occupational fatalities on amusement rides from 1973 through 1996, an average of 4 per year. These include 31 mobile-site fatalities, 48 fixed-site fatalities and 23 fatalities at unknown sites. Most of the fatalities at unknown sites occurred in the 1970s, before the more detailed record keeping of today. The CPSC numbers include only accidents reported to them and do not account for all deaths. The CPSC also reports 29 fatalities of ride operators or other park employees. Again, using the CPSC numbers and assuming two rides per visitor, the IAAPA reports the odds of a fatality are one in 250 million.

The 102 non-occupational fatalities occurred in 36 states, with 7 states experiencing 6 or more deaths. California had more reported deaths than any other state with 12, followed by New York with 9. (See Table 2). The 48 fixed-site fatalities occurred in only 16 states. Again, California led the way with 10, followed by Missouri with 6. Neither California nor Missouri regulates fixed-site amusement parks.

The states with the highest number of accidents appear to be highly populated states with large numbers of amusement parks. This is not surprising. Although the exact number of amusement rides in each state is not available, because of the greater number of parks and larger populations in these states, we would expect more accidents to occur.

Table 2

States With Three or More Amusement Ride Fatalities
(excludes park employees)
1973-1996

Site

State Regulated Sites

State

Fixed

Mobile

Unknown

Total

Fixed

Mobile

California

10

0

2

12

no

yes

New York

4

2

3

9

yes

yes

Florida

0

5

2

7

yes

yes

Illinois

4

2

0

6

yes

yes

Missouri

6

0

0

6

no

no

New Jersey

5

0

1

6

yes

yes

Texas

3

3

0

6

yes

yes

Ohio

1

1

2

4

yes

yes

Wisconsin

0

3

1

4

yes

yes

Colorado

0

1

2

3

yes

yes

Maine

1

0

2

3

yes

yes

Pennsylvania

0

3

0

3

yes

yes

South Carolina

3

0

0

3

yes

yes

Utah

2

1

0

3

yes

yes8

Source: C. Craig Morris, Addendum to Deaths and Injuries Associated With Amusement Rides, Consumer Product Safety Commission, May 19, 1997.

Waterparks

The data do not tell us whether or not waterparks are more dangerous than other types of amusement parks. The World Waterpark Association (WWA) indicates there are approximately 950 facilities across the U.S. In 1996, waterpark attendance reached 58 million, up from 54.5 million in 1995.9 The CPSC reports 17 deaths from waterslide-related accidents10 between January 1980 and December 1996 although not all of these occurred in waterparks. For 1995 and 1996, the WWA is aware of two drownings in each year. As of August, we are aware of two fatal accidents at waterparks this year: a drowning in New Jersey, and the waterslide collapse in Concord, California.

Waterslide Collapses

We know of four cases of waterslide collapses in the U.S., two in California. News accounts indicate that two were caused by manufacturing defects and two from overcrowding the slides. The first three occurred in the early 1980s within 14 months of each other. The fourth occurred nearly 16 years later in 1997.

The first accident was in 1980 at an amusement complex in Memphis, Tennessee where a 50-foot-high waterslide broke, injuring fourteen people. Investigators determined there were too many riders on the slide at the time and there were violations of posted safety rules.11

The second also occurred in 1980 at Fun Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey. A section of a waterslide gave way, dropping six riders about 30 feet to a pier and beach below. None of the riders were seriously hurt. Investigators blamed the collapse on the failure of Plexiglas and ordered the slide closed and the plastic panels replaced. It has since reopened.12

The third accident occurred in August 1981 at the Big O waterslide in Orange, California. In this case, a side wall of a chute cracked and then broke open as riders slid over it. One rider crashed through the hole and he and another rider dangled out of the tube about 40 feet above the ground. They managed to climb back into the slide, but were seriously cut by the plastic edge while doing so. Four other riders were also injured. This plastic was stronger than the Plexiglas involved in the New Jersey accident.13

The most recent accident occurred in June 1997 at Waterworld USA in Concord, California. Here, a chute, overloaded with riders, snapped, sending 33 riders to the pavement below. One rider was killed and 32 injured, 10 seriously.14

Data Problems and Risk Assessment

People die from amusement ride accidents. As mentioned above, 12 people have died in California alone since 1973. (Approximately 115,000 people died from traffic accidents in California during the same period.) From the available data, we are reasonably certain that the risk of death is relatively low. However, most amusement ride accidents result in injury, not death, and those data are not uniformly collected and are much harder to find. Thus, they are not very useful for assessing amusement ride accident risk.

The CPSC estimates of non-fatal injury accidents are based on national surveys of hospital emergency rooms. While their estimates are useful, they provide limited information about the true nature of amusement ride injuries. Because the data are national estimates, they give no information about whether fewer accidents occur in states with or without state oversight, which parks or rides have the most injuries, and perhaps most importantly, the cause of the accidents.

There is widespread belief among industry officials, as well as many state inspection departments, that at least 75 percent of amusement ride accidents stem from horseplay or inattention on the part of riders. Anecdotal evidence suggests they may be right, but there are no meaningful statistics to confirm this belief.

Just as importantly, even if the accident information were complete, accidents still tell only part of the story. Without accurate and detailed information about park attendance and the number of rides taken on each ride, there is no way to know the opportunity for injury, and thus, to assess amusement ride risk. This is true even in the fatality cases where the data are much more comprehensive. Most parks track their own attendance, but usually do not release the information. Industry associations provide estimates of total park attendance, but do not provide detail. The number of rides taken is estimated from the park attendance figures, but not broken out by ride.