Texas Amusement Park Accidents Raise Questions about Safety

On April 28, CNN reported the story of a father and son who were riding in the back car of a rollercoaster in Amarillo when the boy’s seatbelt came undone. The father grabbed his six-year-old son and held him for the remainder of the ride.

In his interview with CNN, the father said that when he told a ride operator at Wonderland Park that the seatbelt had malfunctioned, the operator said that “had happened sometimes.” The ride continued to operate, only without passengers in the back car.

One day after the CNN story aired, a 16-year-old girl died at a church carnival in El Paso when she was thrown from the car of a Sizzler ride. She had told the ride operator her seatbelt wasn’t buckling properly before the ride began, but the ride operator reportedly assured her and the other two occupants of the car that they would be fine.

As summer vacation season begins, people may be wondering just how safe amusement rides really are and what safety regulations apply to these rides. In Texas, and in many other states, amusement ride regulation is spotty – a mix of federal and state laws that aren’t consistently enforced.

Questionable Oversight

Permanent rides in amusement parks are under state jurisdiction, and each state determines how it will respond to accidents. Texas collects accident data from amusement ride operators, but it does not require parks to investigate how accidents occur.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission can investigate accidents that involve temporary rides, such as those found in traveling carnivals. But the CPSC has no authority to investigate permanent amusement rides.

Texas law does require amusement ride operators to carry insurance and have the ride inspected every year. A law enforcement official may, without notice, ask a ride operator to provide proof of insurance and inspection. Even so, traveling rides are disassembled and reassembled numerous times between annual inspections, and that’s why they may be especially dangerous.

The people responsible for setting up, tearing down, and transporting carnival rides often work 14-hour-days and sometimes go without sleep to keep up with the constant movement and relocation of rides. Sleep deprivation raises the risk of making a serious mistake in ride assembly or operation. And many workers have received little to no training on how to properly operate a ride.

Amusement Accidents

The accident reports from permanent amusement ride operators in Texas show a wide range of injuries, the most common being lacerations, contusions, and fractures. These reports often blame the victims, and while it may be true that some ride occupants behave in a way that creates a risk of injury, it’s possible that riders may not understand safety notices, or rides are poorly designed.

In 2013, a woman died after being thrown from the Texas Giant rollercoaster in Arlington. An amusement park accident analyst said the woman’s size may have been a factor in the accident, because the restraints may not have properly secured her. Six Flags Over Texas reopened the ride a few months later with redesigned restraints and a safety notice saying the ride might not accommodate “guests with unique body shapes or sizes.”