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After summer tragedies, calls for oversight

A spike in the number of deaths and injuries brings new scrutiny of

The New Jersey roller coaster that killed two people last weekend had been inspected by state officials before and after its July 1 opening.

The Santa Clara, Calif., ride that was the scene of another fatal accident earlier in the week was scheduled for a safety inspection before the accident occurred.

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Despite these accidents, industry analysts maintain that roller coasters are safe, noting that six times as many people go to the hospital for garden-hose accidents than for coaster mishaps. But throughout the United States, the inspection process is, at best, a patchwork quilt.

There is no federal law regarding inspections, and states' rules vary widely. Kansas, for instance, has no regulations for permanent amusement parks, whereas Ohio - like many states - sends inspectors at least once a year.

In all states, though, the safety burden falls primarily on the parks themselves, with employees checking for frayed wires and loose bolts every day. Now, this new spate of fatal accidents has caused many citizens and lawmakers to call for more government oversight.

Rise in injuries

Coming on the heels of a highly publicized death last Christmas eve at Disneyland - in which a mooring cleat dislodged and hit a tourist - several recent incidents are spotlighting a rise in injuries linked to carnival rides and theme-park attractions.

*In July, two roller-coaster cars at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., derailed, leaving passengers dangling from cars 35 feet above ground.

*Last week, 28 more passengers in Vallejo, Calif., were stranded sideways at 70 feet for four hours while being rescued by hook-and-ladder firefighters.

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*Also last week, a man died on a looping roller coaster in Doswell, Va. He fell after he had partially freed himself from his safety harness.

That accident, combined with the fatal accidents last week in Ocean City, N.J., and Santa Clara bring the number of roller-coaster deaths this year to four, double the annual average over the past two decades. Moreover, 9,200 people were treated in emergency rooms last year because of injuries linked to carnival rides and theme-park attractions - a 24 percent rise from 1994.

As a result, the California Legislature is on the verge of passing a law that would include annual ride inspections, accident reports, and training records by state inspectors.

It's a step in the right direction, say many observers. "There's really no concrete, hard evidence on what the problem is - and this is a big problem," says Richard McClary, a former federal workplace safety inspector who is now a consultant to amusement-park operators. "There's no central reporting agency."

He and other consultants are attempting to get industry officials to standardize inspections and accident reporting nationwide - a move supported by many citizens and media outlets.

"The public deserves more protection than it is getting," opined the Kansas City Star last week. "The state should not be waiting for someone to be hurt seriously before inspecting a ride. It should be proactive."

Still 'extremely safe'

Yet industry officials counter that this year's accidents are an aberration, adding that riding in a roller coaster is safer than riding in a car.

"It really is an extremely safe industry," says John Graff, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va. "But injuries at amusement parks stir public interest. It is a spectacular thing because it involves people having fun."

Often, accidents can result from people having too much fun. The Consumer Products Safety Commission says 75 percent of all amusement-ride accidents are because of patron error, while 20 percent are operator error and 5 percent are mechanical.

Indeed, investigators in Virginia recently said the death there was the result of "the rider's failure to follow the proper safety instructions."

So far, the accidents have not been concentrated in states with loose regulations. "The accidents are happening in the states that have very good inspection programs as well as those that have no inspection programs," says Mr. McClary.

While many industry officials say they are not necessarily opposed to more state regulation, they don't believe another layer of regulation will improve the safety of the parks.

"It really does become a question of the wise allocation of public resources," Mr. Graff says.

For their part, the parks are taking more precautions. With the Labor Day weekend approaching, Paramount Parks, which operates two of the parks where fatal accidents occurred last week, is closing seven of its most popular rides until assessments are made.

Says Paramount spokeswoman, Susan Lomax: "We won't reopen them unless we're confident they can be safely operated."

*Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report. Materials from wire services were also used.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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