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Amusement park safety on upswing

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Amusement park safety on upswing

Injuries, shutdowns hit rock bottom in N.J.

10:34 PM, May. 25, 2011 Daily Record


Despite New Jersey being home to roller coasters and water slides with names such as Wild One and Screamer Slide, it's become safer to go on rides at amusement parks here.


Statistics from the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees carnival and amusement ride inspections, show that the number of incidents involving injuries or ride shutdowns are at historic lows.


More than 300 million people visit U.S. amusement parks annually, producing $57 billion in tourism spending, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group.


The local season will hit full stride over the Memorial Day weekend. William Gehlhaus, co-owner of Keansburg Amusement Park and Runaway Rapids, said higher gasoline prices will keep people closer to home, which means more business at the amusement parks.


“We're ready for the season and the safety of our guests is the highest priority,” Gehlhaus said. “We do a great deal of work taking care of the equipment and I'm happy when the state inspectors show up because that's an extra set of eyes to help. And they're good at pointing out even small things that take maybe five minutes to correct, because you want everything perfect from a safety standpoint.”


The DCA began overseeing the inspection process in 1998. Since then, serious injuries on rides have gone from 24 in 1997 to becoming nearly nonexistent.


Only one serious injury has been recorded over the last two years, according to department records.


The numbers accurately reflect safer experiences in theme parks, said attorney Jeffrey April, from the April & Maudsley law firm in Atlantic County.


“I've seen a noticeable drop in people seeking injury claims,” April said. “The parks are better inspected, the rides have better training for operators, and there's widespread use of surveillance cameras, which enhances training and makes a claim of fault harder to prove if a patron was engaged in horseplay and not following safety rules at the time of an incident.”


There has been one rider fatality in the past 12 years. That occurred in September 2005 at Gillian's Water Park in Ocean City. DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said there wasn't a ride malfunction involved but the death was categorized as accidental when the patron, a teenage girl, drowned after using a water slide. Ryan said the last death attributed to an equipment malfunction occurred in 1999.


Over the same 12-year period, accidents claimed the lives of two park employees. In 2008, a Bulgarian exchange student working at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights died after being hit in the head by a roller-coaster car. The ride operator was injured when he walked into a restricted area under the Star Jet roller coaster to retrieve a baseball cap for a child who lost it during a previous ride.


In 2005 at Funtown Pier Amusements in Seaside Park, an employee died after being electrocuted while loading passengers on a ride.


Equipment failureEquipment failure was blamed for the first incident of this year, occurring two weeks ago, when the Convoy Big Truck ride at Storybook Land in Egg Harbor Township derailed, resulting in injuries to three riders. Ryan said the DCA in its investigation found a right front pivot axle on a riding compartment failed. The piece that failed had been obstructed from view during a visual inspection, she said.


Ryan said more sophisticated testing could have revealed the stress cracks in the failed part.


“The DCA will require all of the spindle pivot axles to be tested prior to reopening the ride. Any parts that show damage will have to be replaced. The DCA also contacted other owners of the same ride and alerted them that testing is needed and that other corrective action may be required, such as the replacement of parts,” Ryan said.


Storybook Land hasn't reopened the ride, based on costs associated with testing and repair, Ryan said.


The DCA's Division of Codes and Standards has 16 ride inspectors, 13 of whom are responsible for mechanical inspections and three specializing in electrical inspections.


A recent round of layoffs at the DCA included the elimination of one mechanical inspector.


“Protecting the public is our first and foremost concern and we would not undertake any course of action that risks the safety and health of New Jersey residents. Consequently, the layoff of one mechanical inspector will not threaten public safety at carnivals and amusement parks,” Ryan said.


The DCA performs annual inspections on all rides plus other in-season inspections.


Parks are not allowed to operate a ride without a permit and inspections.


Officials at Six Flags Great Adventure said they go beyond the state's standards.


“Without question, safety is our No. 1 priority,” said Six Flags spokeswoman Kristin Siebeneicher. “We place the greatest amount of time, talent and resources against our company's safety program that is the most stringent safety program in the industry, and we are extremely proud of our safety record.”


Siebeneicher said the state inspections are supplemented by reviews by an independent safety firm hired by the park and additional inspections by an in-house team.


“In addition, our rides and operators complete a very thorough inspection of each ride every single morning before any guest enters the property. All of these measures work to ensure our rides are safe,” she said.


New Jersey's Carnival and Amusement Ride Safety Act requires a ride manufacturer and the ride owner to submit documentation to the DCA for review of all carnival and amusement rides. The document reviews lead to an annual inspection and permit to operate the ride.


The process is largely industry-funded. The permit to operate a ride can cost up to $756, depending on the type of ride. Over 3,000 rides had permits last year.


“We have a very good relationship with the state,” said Kimberle Samarelli, executive director of the New Jersey Amusement Association, which represents theme parks.


“It's hard to regulate safety.”

Bob Jordan: 609-984-4343; BJordan@NJPressMedia

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