Hidden Summer Dangers

Amusement Park Alert

The CPSC estimates that more than 8,000 Americans, many of them children, landed in the ER in 2001 because of an injury suffered at an amusement park. No agency can compile exact statistics because the amusement park industry isn't uniformly regulated -- or, in some cases, regulated at all.

The federal government oversees traveling carnival rides and puts amusement parks in the hands of the states. Some states do a good job; New Jersey, for instance, has seen the number of serious incidents drop from 24 in 1997 to 3 in 2002 thanks to stricter standards. But eight states -- Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah -- have no mandated ride regulations. And Florida exempts parks with more than 1,000 employees from state regulation. In fact, just 37 states require public reporting of amusement park accidents, and many of those states limit reporting to deaths and catastrophic injuries. Injuries such as broken bones and concussions are reported in only 24 states.

Granted, most amusement parks have their own systems for regulation, including daily inspections. "We're in the business of fun, but in order to be in that business we have to be in the business of safety," says Debbie Evans, director of public relations for Six Flags, Inc., which operates parks in 14 states.

Others contend that self-policing simply isn't enough. "Although progress has been made recently -- for instance, close-fitting child restraints have become standard on new kiddie rides -- self-regulation still means that parks and ride manufacturers aren't required to make their safety records public, and state officials are barred from investigating serious accidents, even if a rider dies," says Kathy Fackler, founder of www.saferparks.org, a Web site devoted to amusement park safety.

What Can You Do

See where your state stands. Fackler's Web site includes a state-by-state guide to ride regulations. If you have a choice between two parks -- and one is regulated and the other isn't -- you're probably better off going to the regulated park, she says. The site also tells you how to lobby for improvements.

Set and review the rules. Before you leave for the park, talk to your children about the importance of keeping their hands and feet inside a ride, never turning around, and not exiting a ride until it has completely stopped. You don't want your excited child to hear this for the first time when she's next in line for a ride. Breaking these rules is the most common cause of injuries.

Choose the right rides. Besides observing the height or age rules, select rides with containment systems like belts or harnesses for young children. Also get a read on whether your child will be able to go on it without panicking. "The height requirement is to ensure that children are of the appropriate size for the ride, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're of the right maturity," says Evans. If your child wants to go on and you have doubts, tag along with him. If he doesn't want to ride, listen to him.

Observe the ride a few times. Does it look well maintained? "If parts are set aside for repair or roped off, you may want to skip the ride," says Connolly. Also make sure the operator is alert and professional, checks the safety bar of each customer, and makes all riders follow the rules.

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