SAN ANTONIO – The death of a Kansas boy who was killed on a water slide this week and another accident Tuesday in Tennessee where three girls fell from a Ferris wheel are raising questions about the safety of amusement park rides.
The Defenders looked at amusement ride injuries over the past five years in the state of Texas and found that while the state tracks injuries, they don't have much power to regulate the industry.
In July 2013, a 52-year-old woman fell to her death when she was ejected from her seat on the Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington.
That accident convinced some state lawmakers to consider giving the state more authority to regulate amusement rides but ultimately nothing materialized.
The only state agency tasked with regulating amusement rides is the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI), but the agency doesn't inspect rides or investigate accidents resulting in injury or death.
"There's nothing in state law that requires our agency to investigate accidents," said Jerry Hagins, a spokesperson for TDI. "We do not have inspectors here at the Department of Insurance that go out and inspect rides or check up on them, but we oversee the insurance aspect of it. That's the way amusement rides are regulated in Texas."
Hagins said Texas only requires amusement ride operators to carry a million-dollar insurance policy on each ride and have an annual inspection by the operator's insurance company.
When the state gets proof of the insurance and the completed inspection, they issue a sticker that is to be placed on the ride.
"It's good for one year, has to be displayed on the ride, like, a car inspection sticker, so that any patron who's getting on a ride should be able to see that there's a current sticker which indicates that ride has insurance and that it's had an annual inspection," Hagins said.
The TDI also tracks the number of injuries reported by each operator.
"State law requires that an amusement park operator report any injuries that occur during the operation of the ride that require medical attention by a physician, and they have to report those to us on a quarterly basis," Hagins said.
According to a review of the TDI's statistics by the Defenders, there have been 25 injuries reported on Texas amusement rides through July 28 this year.
There were 127 in 2015, 108 in 2014, 132 in 2013, 100 in 2012 and 31 in 2011.
Based on those numbers, women were 11 percent more likely to sustain an injury. Women had 287 injuries, while men accounted for 231.
When it comes to age, those between 10 and 19 were most likely to be hurt with 140 injuries reported, followed by the 30-39 age group with 79 injuries and the 1-9 age group had 72 injuries.
The most commonly injured body parts are the head, shoulder, back, neck, ankle and lower back.
While the state tracks injuries, some argue that the general public is not getting a full picture of the number of accidents because there's no oversight to make sure operators are reporting accurate numbers.
"I think most ride operators are complying with the law. The question is, is the law strong enough?," said Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, a citizen advocacy group focused on insurance and public safety issues. "We continue to have injuries and deaths on these rides, so something's not going right."
Winslow argues the Legislature needs to give the state more power to enforce regulations.
"We need to do something about it and it's the Legislature’s job to make sure the safety of the public is our top priority," Winslow said. "If it's additional resources to hire more inspectors, to make sure these rides are complying with the law, then we should look really hard at that and make sure the resources are available to local law enforcement, or to state agencies, required to oversee these rides."
There is currently no federal oversight or regulation of amusement rides. The government used to have that authority, but it was stripped away in the 1980s, resulting in the current patchwork of state and local regulations across the country.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, an industry group, argues against more regulations. The IAAPA points to the relatively low number of injuries and deaths compared to the hundreds of millions of visitors to amusement parks each year, showing they're doing a good job of policing themselves and following a voluntary set of safety standards.
Winslow believes that needs to change.
"The ride operators are supposed to be policing themselves and that's good as far it goes, and I think most ride operators want to comply with safety requirements,” Winslow said. “We need to make sure one: that the safety standards are high enough, and two: that the ride operators are in fact complying with the state safety requirements. We need more inspectors. We need better enforcement of existing laws. We need to take a hard look at whether safety standards should be strengthened, all with an eye towards protecting the public from needless injury and harm."
Voluntary industry safety standards links: