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The Element of Danger

Without a central, accessible database, no one can accurately measure the safety of amusement park rides.

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The crowds hardly waned at Six Flags New Orleans despite national media attention on Rosa Donaldson, a grandmother who died on July 9 in an accident involving one of the park rides. People continued to flock to the park after details of Donaldson's death emerged. She was in a ride area making sure her grandson was strapped into the "Joker's Jukebox" when the ride started up, its cars striking her. An investigation by the state fire marshal's office -- the agency that regulates amusement parks in Louisiana -- concluded the tragedy was not the result of a mechanical problem. The Joker's Jukebox was up and running days later ("Who's The (Best) Boss?" July 22).

Theme-park industry officials say it's not surprising that people feel safe in amusement parks, even after such a tragedy. Accidents in theme parks, they say, are so rare that riding on a thrill ride has a lower injury rate than playing golf or shuffleboard. Industry critics paint a very different picture, saying more people were killed on roller coasters from 1997-2000 than on passenger trains, planes or buses in the same time frame. Both sides present extensive data supporting their claims.

It's impossible to say who's right. Fixed-site amusement parks (as opposed to "mobile-site" parks such as traveling carnivals) are not federally regulated. That means there is no central reporting agency for injuries -- no government database to list the number and type of injuries that occur on specific rides, or in specific parks, across the country.

Currently, theme parks are largely regulated by the industry itself. Theme parks voluntarily report accidents to the industry trade organization (the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA) and to ride manufacturers, which are supposed to correct defects. Forty-two states, including Louisiana, also have some type of local regulatory agency. Mobile-site parks fall under the oversight of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), but fixed-site parks escaped CPSC regulation in 1981. A bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. -- titled the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act -- would close that loophole.

Bill supporters say that federal regulation would enable government officials to inspect rides and investigate accidents. They could then determine what changes, if any, are needed not only for the ride in question but also for similar rides across the country. The bill also would require theme parks to submit detailed accident reports to the CPSC.

The industry is fighting Markey's bill, saying the federal government doesn't have adequate resources or expertise to oversee theme parks. Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, an industry supporter, says he doesn't see a compelling case for federal regulation.

At a minimum, better data collection of amusement-park accidents is needed. Both sides of the debate admit their numbers are open to interpretation. Without a central, accessible database, no one can accurately measure the safety -- or lack thereof -- of amusement park rides.

However, Markey's bill in its current form is not the answer. While the legislation would provide for a centralized injury database, the bill appropriates just $500,000 per year for the CPSC to inspect parks across the country -- a relatively paltry sum that critics say is not as much as the theme-park industry currently spends to ensure the safety of rides. If the CPSC is to assume such a massive responsibility, it should be adequately funded.

The bill also doesn't address a major factor in some theme-park injuries: human error. Some accidents are the fault of a negligent, careless, poorly trained or inexperienced operator. As Robert Niles, a former Disney ride operator and current editor of www.themeparkinsider.com says, "Experienced operators can foresee and prevent a great number of accidents."

Niles points out that amusement parks have notoriously high employee turnover rates. Many ride operators are seasonal employees in their teens. "More important than raising the minimum age," says Niles, "is raising the minimum wage. There are plenty of 16-year-olds out there with the intelligence and savvy to run rides very safely. It's just that those people, because they are intelligent and savvy, are able to find a lot of better-paying things to do for the summer. If you're paying dirt-cheap wages, you're not going to be able to keep them at age 17 and 18 and 19, when they're more experienced." Because the Markey bill doesn't mention the training and experience expectations of those who operate complex pieces of heavy machinery, it doesn't fully address injury prevention at amusement parks.

We have enthusiastically welcomed Six Flags as a major local tourist attraction and applaud the improvements the national chain has brought to the former Jazzland theme park. Now, we hope that our state's congressional delegation will support at least one aspect of Markey's bill -- a centralized government database for all injuries on theme-park rides. The creation of such a database would be the first step in encouraging more people to visit Six Flags and other parks -- to experience the thrill of perceived danger, but never the real thing.

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