Opinion: Stronger laws needed to govern amusement and water parks

Window on the West
by Mary Rupert

The events of five days ago – the death of a 10-year-old boy at the Verruckt water slide ride at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan., – have made it clear that the Kansas law governing them is weak.

The accident was still under investigation and as of Friday, its cause had not been announced.

A glance at the laws governing amusement parks (online at http://kslegislature.org/li_2014/b2013_14/statute/044_000_0000_chapter/044_016_0000_article/044_016_0001_section/044_016_0001_k/ and regulations at www.dol.ks.gov/Safety/park.aspx) would convince almost anyone that they are very weak.

Compare them, for example, to our laws on restaurant food inspections. A state or a municipality inspector will inspect restaurants, file a report, and then the report becomes available for public inspection. Consumers can easily visit the website (https://foodsafety.kda.ks.gov/FoodSafety/Web/Inspection/PublicInspectionSearch.aspx) to check on the latest report.

Under the current Kansas law for amusement park rides, however, the inspections are yearly self-inspections, and are kept by the owner of the park.

The Kansas law says, “Each patron of an amusement ride, by participation, accepts the risks inherent in such participation of which an ordinary prudent person is or should be aware.”

Consumers today have come to expect more of their government. They expect a little more oversight. But there is little federal oversight, either, of these rides. The local government has said it does not do ride inspections, either.

State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., said, “One of the things we’ve learned is the public agrees that Kansas and many other states should have stronger oversight and maybe even regulation on fixed site amusement parks.”

Sen. David Haley
Sen. David Haley

While he said he doesn’t have all the answers on what needs to be done, he said there is a pretty strong consensus among people that staff training and having engineers check the site should be part of the equation.

“Since there is no federal law, I think we need to look at the best practices of those states that already have seemingly event-free or negative event-free occurrences,” Sen. Haley said. “Who is implementing it, who stores the data, that seems to be a good place to start so it doesn’t cost very much to reinvent a well oiled ferris wheel.”

If a law is working well in another state, with no incidents, with oversight and training managed by that state, then Kansas could learn from them to keep its ferris wheels and roller coasters as safe as possible, he said.

While others may raise questions about legislators who accept a free gift (free admission) from someone who wants to have a law passed in their favor, a lot of legislators apparently don’t look at it that way.

Sen. Haley said he was invited to the legislators’ day at Schlitterbahn on Sunday, but did not go. He has attended before, however. He said it’s often hard to find time to spend together with the family when legislators are in public service, and he feels this was a wonderful invite by Schlitterbahn to legislators and their families to have time to spend together.

“Schlitterbahn is a jewel in our county, and this is a horrific event,” Sen. Haley said. “But I sure hope that Schlitterbahn continues to thrive and to prosper, and that this tragic accident, once they get the corrections in place, won’t mar its current and future success.”

Last session the Legislature debated what rules should be in place for parks that allow visitors to interact with potentially dangerous animals, he said.

“The examples of people going to an inherently dangerous environment with the expectation that some oversight has been afforded that won’t injure or kill them is what we have to address here,” Sen. Haley said.

He doesn’t recall any Kansas debates about amusement park ride laws because there are few if any amusement parks. When laws concerning traveling circuses were discussed, there was tremendous apathy, and some pushback, he added.

Sen. Haley said he has requested the National Conference of State Legislatures to research the best practices from different states on amusement park ride laws to see what seems to be working well in other places.

On Friday, reports out of Topeka stated the governor said the law needs to be looked at after this tragedy occurred.

The reason I favor stronger laws on amusement park and water park rides is simply that it is our families, children and grandchildren who are riding them. It’s a sad truth that nothing seems to get done unless there is a tragedy. I hope that it will not take another tragedy to get more safety oversight in place in Kansas.

To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email maryr@wyandottedaily.com.

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