States called on to make sure amusement parks are safe as well as fun

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The bar slams down. Fingers tighten in anticipation of the coming loops, twists, spins, and dives. The car begins to rock. One las deep breath, and whoosh -- you're off.

Amusement rides -- they have promised fun, fantasy, thrills, and lots of laughter for a hundred years.

Yet within the last month, major ride-related injuries or fatalities have occured in Illinois, Texas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Colorado. Annually the number of ride injuries totals 6,000 to 8,000.

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It is not only those publicized accidents that have increasing numbers of people calling for stricter ride-safety standards. Lack of safety codes and incomplete records of problems, foster the persistence of minor injuries caused by improper safety features, untrained operators, and public ignorance of the dangers that may exist -- at giant amusement theme parks to small carnivals in shopping center parking lots.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), investigating accidents and forwarding information on to the states, has served as a catalyst, pushing those in the amusement business to adopt stronger safety habits.

But on provision, will bar the federal budget, soon to be signed by President Reagan, will bar the CPSC from investigating ride-related accidents in permanent amusement parks.

At a time when some parks and carnivals are busier than ever, will safety awareness continue under state regulations?

To ensure safer rides at amusement parks and carnivals, safety experts and concerned citizens suggest:

* Greater public awareness of potential ride dangers to help eliminate accidents caused by patron carelessness. Although the most serious and fatal accidents in the amusement industry are associated with fast, thrill rides, seemingly harmless rides have lead to fatal injuries.

* Adoption of ride safety legislation in all states. Currently only 16-to-18 states have any type of ride safety regulations, and some of these cover only traveling carnivals.

* Periodic inspections of all amusement park and carnival rides by qualified state inspectors.

* Increased communication between all in the amusement industry to ensure familiarity with ride safety problems, and new safety requirements issued by manufacturers.

* Nationwide acceptance of voluntary maintenance and safety standards developed by the amusement industry in conjunction with the American Society of Testing and Materials.

"It is a shame that too many times, only after a ridecrises occurs do states pass safety regulations," says Nancy Burkhiemer, deputy commissioner of labor and industry for the state of Maryland.

Burkhiemer, who administers the comprehensive state ride-safety code, says because of public educational campaigns, people will now call her office if a ride is operating without a state inspection sticker. Maryland's law requires inspection of all carnival rides each time they are reassembled, and permanent amusement park rides twice a year.

Inspection of rides by state officials draws fire from individual amusement park and carnival managers, who contend many state inspectors are unqualified to check rides.

Virtually all park or carnival operators said they had continuous in-house safety checks and year-round maintenance programs. Rolly Larson, of the Outdoors Business Association, representing traveling carnivals, contends most state regulations discriminate against traveling carnivals, requiring numerous inspections of their rides and only a few at permanent parks. The fees charged for inspections by some states, place an unfair burden on traveling shows, says Mr. Larson.

Portable rides, Larson says, have built-in safety, since every bolt and key is examined each time a ride is reassembled, Larson contends. "If a pin is worn someone is goint to see it."

With over 2 billion ride tickets purchased annually in the United States, safety has to the No. 1 priority at amusement parks and carnivals, says those in the business.

"A parks very existence is based on its reputation," says Mary Ann Kroeger, of International Association of Amusement Parks.

Insurance can guard against monetary loss, contends Harry Hemminger, park manager at the 83-year-old Kennywood Park, near Pittsburgh. "But once your reputation is lost, you're out of business.

A rotted-out-wooden roller coaster that blew down the day after it was shut down by an inspector is one of many hazardous situations uncovered during the five years Maryland's ride-safety law has been in effect. Other safety violations include: cracsk in a ride's base structure, missing seat belts, malfunctioning brakes, improper electrical grounding, and the hiring of untrained people to help assemble and then operate rides.

Dan Dudely, chief inspector for Maryland's program, says safety practices have greatly improved since his first year of inspecting. "Most carnival and amusement park managers are very safety conscious," he says.

Traveling shows can move as much as 15 times a month. They may travel many miles, set up the rides in the dark, and open a carnival the following day, says Mr. Dudely. "They can be a little tired, misjudge, and leave out safety pins," he says.

Since Marylands's safety regulations have been enforced, certain carnival companies now bypass the state.

"They go to Pennsylvania and Delaware instead, states without regulations," says Nancy Berkhiemer. "And the people who come in only bring their best equipment."

In recent years legislative proponents of safety regulations have tried repeatedly, but without success, to pass ride-safety laws in Texas and Illinois. They cite pressure from large amusement parks and carnival owners as the reason for defeat of the bills.

Timothy Johnson, a state representative for Illinois, says that although he is a conservative Republican and usually doesn't beleive in many governmental regulations, certain social functions are hazardous and have to be regulated. "Amusement parks are a classic example where some type of state regulations are neede d," he says.

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