How safe are carnival rides?

Injury at mobile amusement park raises questions

It had been a fabulous fall evening at a carnival in Jonesboro for Tracie Tucker and her son, Benjamin: the bright lights and spinning rides, the noise of the midway and the scent of delicious treats.

Benjamin, then 4, was having a great time working his way through an obstacle-filled fun house, his mother said: navigating past punching bags, through a pit full of balls, and then to the top of a platform where he was about to ride down a slide.

Then Tucker watched in horror as a support ring fell and a metal rail crashed onto Benjamin’s head. The October 2008 incident is described in a state investigation report.

“There was blood everywhere,” Tucker said in an interview. “And honestly, when I got to the top I thought my son would be dead.”

Benjamin needed four stitches on the top of his head, state records show.

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Nationally, thousands of people among the millions who visit amusement parks and carnivals are injured on rides each year.

In Georgia, 28 injury incidents have been investigated by state regulators since 2005, according to reports on file at the Georgia Department of Labor, which inspects carnival rides.

The incident in Jonesboro shattered the Tucker family’s confidence in amusement rides.

“I think everyone questions how safe the little carnivals are that set up on the corner,” Tucker said. “We don’t go to them anymore.”

Mishaps at the parks

Millions of people safely ride attractions at carnivals and theme parks every year, data show.

“The industry goes to great lengths to be safe,” said David Mandt, a spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which represents fixed-location parks.

An official at an association representing mobile carnivals agreed. “No one who owns an amusement ride wants any type of incident,” said Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. “But things do happen, and a very high percentage of the time it’s as a result of a patron who is not riding properly.”

The 28 injuries investigated in Georgia since 2005 included a man being thrown off a whirling swing into a fence; girls’ legs badly cut when a trailer awning was opened into the path of their whirling ride; and a little girl who fell from near the top of a Ferris wheel. Others involved collisions on go-kart tracks or riders tripping while getting on or off rides, records show.

Under Georgia regulations, all amusement rides are inspected once a year, more often if there’s an incident or reason to suspect a problem, said Paul Welch, acting director of safety engineering at the state Labor Department.

Mobile carnival rides are inspected the first time they set up in the state each year. The busiest times of years for carnival rides are September and October and April and May, he said.

Inspectors check the operators’ insurance paperwork as well as documentation showing manufacturers’ safety tests on the rides. They inspect each ride, from the center post to the sweep arms to the cars, looking for missing or mismatched pins or bolts. They examine seat restraints to make sure they’re working, Welch said.

“If they’re inspected, they’re safe,” he said, noting that operators are required to report any incident involving an injury or damage to equipment.

Amusement ride industry officials note that the number of incidents nationally is tiny compared with the number of people going to theme parks and carnivals.

1.8 billion rides

U.S. amusement parks had nearly 300 million visits in 2007 and visitors took 1.8 billion rides, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. A National Safety Council study commissioned by the association estimated that 1,309 ride-related injuries occurred in these fixed-location parks in 2007. Of those, 35 were reported as serious enough to require overnight treatment at a hospital, the report said.

Exactly how many people are injured on amusement rides of all types is unclear.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction only over mobile rides, such as those found at carnivals — not fixed-site amusement park rides.

In 2005, the last time the agency put out a report on the topic, the CPSC estimated that mobile amusement rides were involved in about 2,500 injuries treated at hospital emergency rooms during 2004.

Park and carnival operators said such numbers should give the public great confidence in their attractions — particularly if patrons follow safety instructions. “The industry goes to great lengths to be safe,” Mandt said. “Safety is a true partnership between the parks and the patrons.”

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Injuries on amusement rides

Georgia regulatory files contain about two dozen investigations of injury incidents involving amusement rides since 2005. They include:

● Four children became ill and started vomiting in May when the Wheelie ride at Six Flags Over Georgia failed to stop when it was supposed to and continued to spin after a mechanical limit switch failed. Because of a miscommunication with her supervisor, the ride’s operator didn’t activate the ride’s emergency stop and it continued to spin the children around for five to 10 minutes, according to a state investigation report. Park medics treated the children; one child was taken to a hospital by his parents but not admitted. Six Flags has added safety features to the ride so that it will automatically stop within 15 seconds if the limit switch fails again, according to state records and park spokeswoman Kendell Kelton. Park employees are trained to activate the emergency stop if anything goes wrong, Kelton said.

● A 43-year-old man was hospitalized after he was hurled out of his seat on a twirling swing-ride into a fence in July 2008 at a carnival in Loganville. State investigators found one of the seat’s support chains had disconnected, possibly due to an improper S-hook.

● Two 9-year-old boys were injured while riding a motorcycle kiddie ride when one of the bikes came off its path at a carnival at the Carroll County Fair Grounds in October 2008. One boy suffered a broken leg; the other a sprained ankle.

● A 17-year-old South Carolina boy was killed in June 2008 at Six Flags Over Georgia after he and a friend climbed over a fence at the Batman the Ride attraction. He was in an unauthorized area when the ride struck and decapitated him. The state’s final investigative report on the incident is not complete, but park officials have noted the teen was in an area off-limits to visitors.

● A 23-year-old carnival operator was seriously injured when he fell from a ride at a carnival set up at the Plaza Fiesta shopping center in Atlanta in April 2008. The man had just put two children into a car on a Roll-O-Plane ride and was in the process of securing their restraints and closing the door when the ride unexpectedly began to move. As he held onto the car door in an unsuccessful attempt to keep it from moving, he was carried 35 feet above the ground until the ride stopped and he lost his grip and fell. The incident was possibly caused by the operator failing to fully set the ride’s brake, according to the state report. The operator recovered from his injuries, according to state regulators and Pam Guthrie, an official with Jules & Beck Combined Shows, which ran the carnival.

● A 3-year-old child suffered electrical burns and an irregular heartbeat after he came in contact with a live 110-volt electrical lighting wire while climbing the stairs of the Fun Slide ride at a carnival in Jasper in 2006. Teenagers had been messing around with an electrical box near the stairs, carnival officials said, and one of the wires made contact with the stair rail as the child grabbed it. “It was a very unusual accident,” said Ray Guthrie, owner of Peachtree Rides, which operated the slide.

● Two 12-year-old girls suffered bad cuts to their legs when an awning on a trailer was opened into the path of the whirling swing ride they were on at a carnival in Ellijay in 2005.

● A 4-year-old girl fell about 70 feet out of a gondola-type Ferris wheel at a Jules & Beck carnival in 2005 at Turner Field in Atlanta. The girl, who was riding with her 6-year-old sister, apparently became scared, stood up and fell over the side of the gondola. She shouldn’t have been on the ride without an adult, state regulators concluded in their report. Carnival visitors watched as the child’s body hit various support braces on the way down. Amazingly, she survived, said Paul Welch, acting director of safety engineering at the Georgia Department of Labor. “I was the one who investigated it. When they told me on the phone, I was honestly expecting her to be deceased,” Welch said. He said he thinks she suffered either a broken hip or leg.

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What you can do

● Follow the rules: Read and follow all directions on posted safety signs. Age, height and weight restrictions aren’t arbitrary, amusement officials said. They often relate to how a ride’s restraints are designed.

● Observe health restrictions: If you’ve had a recent surgery or illness, have a heart condition, are pregnant or have high blood pressure or aneurysms, it might not be safe to ride.

● Use the safety equipment: Don’t loosen restraints or other safety devices.

● Stay put: Remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop and you’re instructed to exit.

● Evaluate children: Make sure a child is capable of understanding safe riding behavior. And never force them onto a ride they don’t want to take.

● Report injuries: Amusement ride users can report safety problems or injuries to the Georgia regulators’ emergency line at 404-473-1301.

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How we got this story

The reporter reviewed amusement ride investigation files at the Georgia Department of Labor’s safety engineering office in Atlanta. She interviewed national and local ride industry officials, state regulators and ride patrons; and reviewed Consumer Product Safety Commission reports and data.

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