An Amusement Ride's Safety Could Depend On What State It Swung Through Last

Aug 2, 2017

A week after the fatal accident on the Fire Ball amusement ride, many Ohio State Fair-goers aren't deterred.

"I'm here to ride all the rides—the ones that are open, at least," Dylan Bryant says.

Standing in line for a thrill ride, Bryant doesn't think an accident like that will happen again.

"It's kind of scary the fact that somebody died, but in all honesty, if they were all open I'd ride them all," he says.

Last week's tragedy at the fair—in which the Fire Ball's gondolas broke apart, killing an 18-year-old man and leaving seven others injured—has raised a lot of questions about government oversight and inspections. 

In Ohio, state inspectors assess the rides before they can be licensed to operate—that's in addition to the inspectors hired by the ride owners. Some rides even require the expertise of a third party inspector.

It's a thorough process, but some states have far fewer regulations.

"Well, first of all, it depends on what state you're in," says Ken Martin.

Martin has specialized in amusement ride inspection and safety since the '90s. He says that rides like the Fire Ball are constantly being disassembled, loaded onto trucks and driven to fairs across the country.

Each state has different rules on how that machine is inspected, as well as different safety standards. For example, in Ohio, as in many other states, the ride owners are responsible for reporting any accidents or malfunctions.

"And I've said it before and I'll say it again, and sometimes it's a case of the fox guarding the hen house," Martin says.

Martin thinks owners may forgo reporting for the sake of saving their profits. And when a malfunction or design flaw causes an accident, Martin says, unless it garners media attention, it can take weeks before other inspectors find out and know what to look for.

"I am very concerned about the serious injuries and deaths, but I am also concerned about the near misses," he says.

Martin argues that some kind of federal oversight would help. When it comes to informing consumers, there is no national database that tracks every injury resulting from an amusement ride.

Research by Nationwide Children's Hospital estimates that more than 4,000 kids are injured on rides each year, but research manager Tracy Mehan said better data is needed to understand the scope of the problem. 

"Because what that will allow us to do is track, is an injury happening on a certain type of ride? Or is it more fixed sites versus mobile?" Mehan says. "We really don't have a clear picture right now."

Mehan thinks a federal database would be the best solution, but that's something that many in the mobile ride industry have strongly opposed for many years.

"We believe that we are better off as an industry with state oversight, with regulations that are designed to protect the public and certainly the industry as well," says Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association.

The OABA, which has existed since the '60s, is one of the largest trade groups in this industry.

When it comes to how rides are inspected and how the inspectors are trained, some organizations have become leaders in best practices. Their standards have been adopted by many states, including Ohio, but not all.

Johnson pushes states to follow these standards, but still opposes federal rules. When accidents happen, he says the state and the industry are perfectly capable of regulating themselves.

One such example happened in 2003, when a young boy at an Ohio fair was fatally electrocuted. 

"You know, since then, you know, things have changed both in the state and from a regulatory standpoint as well as our industry," Johnson says.

At the end of the day, Johnson says the ride owners are the ones who have the most at stake when something goes wrong. He says it's in their best interest to follow best practices and adhere to manufacturer requirements.