Amusement Parks are Exempted from Federal Regulation, Raising Safety Concerns
Immobile American amusement parks are exempted from federal regulation. In the 1980s, operators successfully lobbied to keep parks from federal oversight by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most are overseen by the states, but those in six U.S. states have no oversight at all – Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah. And, the majority of the time, the states rely on the companies operating the parks to report any accidents.
In 1999, Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, sought to bring federal oversight, calling it a “gigantic ‘regulatory black hole’ for park visitors.” Although he introduced legislation to support increased regulatory measures, Disney and its competitors successfully lobbied against the effort. “It seeks to address a problem that does not exist,” the head of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions suggested in 2008.
“In our experience, robust state regulations are the most effective and proactive way to ensure ride safety,” said Greg Hale, chief safety officer for Disney Parks, adding, “We have long been a key industry leader in developing and advocating for rigorous safety standards.”
Mobile parks with rides that can be moved from place to place, like carnivals and state fairs, are not exempted from federal oversight. However, accidents also occur in those that are immobile, and many believe they should be subjected to the same standards.
Luke Gibbs knows this all too well. His wife, Rachel, was permanently injured after her scarf was caught in a go-kart axle at an amusement park in Michigan, snapping her windpipe. The injury left her with permanent brain damage, and she now lives in a long-term care facility in southwest London.
“Originally I was coming every other day to see Rachel, but you start to accept that her condition is as it is,” Gibbs, 43, said. “One doctor at the very early stages said once you are in a permanent vegetative state, you’re in that level of consciousness, it wouldn’t matter whether I visited constantly, or whether I visited once every 10 years or 100 years.”
Management at the amusement park, AJ’s Family Fun Center, near Grand Rapids, never expressed remorse about the event. A 2007 internal memorandum warned employees to “never admit fault for accidents,” adding, “our common phrase is ‘AJ’s is an at your own risk Fun Park.’” Court and state records showed insufficient safety measures. They also showed the go-karts were purchased nine years earlier from a Tennessee park, which cautioned that most “have seasons worth of use on the clutch, bearings, and seals.”
This wasn’t the only tragedy that occurred in recent years. After a teenager died and seven were injured in 2017 in an accident at the Ohio State Fair, a federal investigation was performed. The full findings have not been released. In 2016, a 10-year-old boy was decapitated at a Kansas water work and a woman fell to her death from a Texas roller coaster in 2013.
Susan L. Storey, a spokeswoman for the parks association, said “guidance for the safe operation of rides comes from well-defined international standards,” adding that “rides may also be subjected to layers of third-party examination and inspection including state, local, insurance, and other independent evaluations.”
It was estimated there were 29,400 ride injuries requiring emergency treatment in 2017 at all types of parks, as well as inflatable attractions and coin-operated rides at shopping malls. The fact that they are exempted from federal oversight troubles some advocates.
“Many states will give you what the parks are telling them,” said Kathy Fackler, whose son was injured at a park in the 1990s. “Even in the states that have good programs, the compliance is all over the map.”