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Would Federal Tracking of Accidents Make Amusement Rides Safer?

Ohio State Fair

Last week's tragedy at the Ohio State Fair that killed one fair goer and injured seven others has raised a lot of questions about amusement rides. WOSU's Adora Namigadde looks closer at one of those questions: government inspections and regulations for carnival-style rides that vary state-by-state. 

A week after the fatal accident on the ride, the Fire Ball, many fair-goers aren't deterred.

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

Bryant  is standing in line for tickets and 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,” Bryant says.

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.

“It depends on what state you're in,” says Ken Martin, who has specialized in amusement-ride inspection and safety since the 90s.

'Sometimes it's a case of the fox guarding the hen house.'

  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 and different safety standards. The state where they arrive determines how they're inspected and what standards are used to qualify them as safe.

Up to ride owners to report problems
For example, in Ohio, as in many other states, the ride owners are responsible for reporting any accidents or malfunctions.

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

Martin thinks owners may not report to ensure their profits. And when a malfunction or design flaw causes an accident, Martin says, unless it gets a lot of 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,” Martin says.

Should the feds step in?
Martin says 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 Nationwide's Tracy Mehan says better data is needed to understand the scope of the problem. 

“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. We really don't have a clear picture right now,” Mehan says.

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

'We believe that we are better off as an industry with state oversight.'

The industry says it -- and states -- know best
Bob Johnson is president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, one of the largest trade groups in this industry. It’s been around since the 60s. 

“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,” Johnson says.

When it comes to how rides are inspected and how the inspectors are trained, some organizations  have become leaders in best practices, and 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. For example in 2003, when a young boy at an Ohio fair was fatally electrocuted. 

“Since then, you know things have changed both in the state and from a regulatory standpoint as well as our industry,” Johnson says.

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.