Kathy Fackler: Working to keep amusement parks safe

    Consumer Reports News: July 02, 2007 02:15 PM

    Last Friday, a 21-year-old park employee was fatally ejected from the Mind Scrambler, a spinning ride at Rye Playland amusement park in New York, the third person to be killed by a ride at the park since 2004, and the second fatality on the Mind Scrambler. Two weeks ago, a 13-year-old girl had both her legs severed, just above the ankles, on an amusement ride, when a cable snapped on a drop tower at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom.    

    These gruesome accidents once again raise the question of amusement park safety — and the accountability of amusement park owners and government regulators to make sure such rides are safe.

    That's been Kathy Fackler's mission for the last eight years.  Fackler has been pushing for stronger amusement park oversight and more public disclosure of park accidents since 1998, when her  then 5-year-old son David had hurt himself so badly on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain roller-coaster ride that he lost part of his foot. She now runs Saferparks, a public service organization devoted to preventing ride injuries through research, information sharing, and advocacy.

    The latest incidents make Fackler's case even stronger. As she commented last month, after the Kentucky accident:

    "What happened to that little girl highlights the high price of even a single failure. The only brag-worthy statistic for limb loss on an amusement park ride is zero. Cables don't just snap. If they do, something has gone badly wrong in the system. There's a history behind every serious accident that, if uncovered, can illuminate a path to prevention — not just on that ride or in that park, but on similar equipment across the globe.  Public records ensure that safety-critical information is available to all who need it, expanding the knowledge base of the engineer and inspector communities, and allowing consumers the right of informed choice in the marketplace."

    Fackler didn't set out to be a safety crusader after her son was injured. Initially, she just wanted some answers — a chance to talk to Disneyland engineers to understand what happened. She said she was not after some big monetary legal award, but wanted to know what steps Disneyland had taken to prevent future injuries. But the answers were hard to come by. At first, as Fackler recently recalled, Disney officials told her the only way she could find out if changes had been made to the ride was to "go to the park, buy a ticket and take a ride to see if anything looked different." 

    For Fackler, her "watershed moment" came several months after David was injured, when a Disney guest died in a Christmas Eve accident on another ride. News reports said it was the park's first serious injury in four years. Fackler personally knew otherwise —and wanted to make sure the public did as well. She contacted the press and the California state legislator who had been pushing for tighter amusement park laws for years, offering help. "I thought it would be 10 minutes of my time. I was very naïve." Although it took less than a year to get the new law passed in 1999, it took several more to write the rules to implement it. By that time, Fackler was so vested in the new law that it's no surprise she participated in the rule-writing committees. "By that time I was hooked," she said. 

    Fackler now has her sights on a higher authority: pushing the federal government to enact tighter standards as well. While nonpermanent rides — such as traveling carnivals, go-karts and inflatables like Moon Bounces — are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission under the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Act, amusement rides and water slides at permanent theme parks are exempt from federal oversight. Fackler has been working with Rep.Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who in May reintroduced the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act, H.R. 2320, to close that loophole and extend the CPSC's authority to cover fixed-site amusement park rides.

    Meanwhile, state laws vary widely; many do not require any public reporting of major mechanical failures or fatalities or severe injuries. In some states, including Florida with its popular destination resorts, regulation of theme park thrill rides  "is nonexistent," Fackler said.

    In the Kentucky incident, the ride happened to be located in Kentucky, a state that has a government ride inspection program; the incident is being investigated by state officials. But there are similar rides in states that don't have such oversight, Fackler said.  "Why are many theme park thrill rides subject to less stringent government safety oversight than the plush toys and hot dogs sold in their shops? " she asks.  To us, that's a very valid question. 

    David Fackler's accident didn't stop Fackler from taking her family to amusement parks and carnivals. But she's ever more wary--and wants other visitors to be so too. In 2000, Fackler founded Saferparks; its Web site provides great safety tips for kids and parents, including kid-friendly quizzes and tips. The site also has a valuable database on amusement park injuries and deaths. Did you know for example that two-thirds of falls and ejections involve children under 10? 

    It's easy to understand why Fackler is one of our safety crusaders. Do you know of someone who should join that growing list? If so, please contact us

    Among Fackler's tips: 

    • Be a cautious consumer when choosing amusement rides for your own kids. Base the decision on what you know about your child and the ride, not on what a teenage ride operator says or what you see other parents doing. 
    • "Be aware that amusement rides are not necessarily child safe – not even those designed specifically for young children.  There are no mandatory federal safety standards for amusement rides.  Parents should look at minimum height limits as a marketing tool, not a reliable safety measure, and add their own margin of safety on top of that." 
    • Teach your children about ride safety when you visit parks and carnivals, but never rely solely on posted rules or verbal instructions to keep young child safe around heavy machinery.  If your child is too young to cross a busy intersection, he or she is probably too young to ride alone in the open car of a speeding amusement ride.

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