Death at Texas Six Flags: How safe are amusement park rides?

With no federal oversight and 21 states with no local oversight, you may be riding at your own risk Photo: AP photo

WASHINGTON, July 22, 2013- Texas authorities are investigating what caused a woman to fall to her death riding the “Texas Giant” roller coaster at the Arlington, Texas Six Flags theme park Friday night. Like many other states, Texas has no governmental agency that oversees amusement park safety. The roller coaster has been closed pending an investigation of what caused the accident, but the rest of the park is remaining open.

“The ride has to be stopped and not re-opened until it’s re-inspected by a certified inspector,” Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance, responsible for approval and inspection of amusement rides, said Sunday evening.

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However, the Texas Department of Insurance stated that it was only accountable for overseeing amusement park liability insurance and annual safety inspections, not the investigation of accidents.

Local authorities announced Sunday that the official police investigation was complete, ruling that there was no foul play involved.

“Six Flags is the one conducting the investigation,” said Arlington Police spokesman Christopher Cook on Sunday. After the release of a report expected Monday, Cook said that he did not anticipate further police inquiry. 

Opening in 1990 initially as an all-wooden coaster, the Texas Giant underwent a $10 million renovation to install steel-hybrid rails, reopening in 2011. It is 14 stories at its highest point, has a drop of 79 degrees, and a bank of 95 degrees. The coaster can carry up to 24 riders at one time. 

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Witnesses say the woman fell from the car as the coaster made a sudden turn. According to several local news reports she was in the park with her family, her son and daughter riding with her at the time of the accident. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene Friday night.

Amusement park safety

Part of the fun in riding a rollercoaster is the fear. As the wheels begin to crank up the hill, the fear of falling becomes more and more palpable. However, behind the fear is the belief that the ride is ultimately safe, in good repair, and that there is no real danger. 

But in reality, are riders safe on roller coasters and other amusement rides?

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There is no federal oversight of amusement park safety and states vary on how amusement park rides are regulated.

Texas is among the 21 states that do not have an agency responsible for overseeing safety on amusement park rides.  In these states, riders basically put their lives in the hands of park operators. 

According to the most recent data from the National Safety Council, in 2011 there were 1,204 ride-related injuries, 61 considered serious, and 405 occurring on roller coasters. However, the report does not list fatalities and only 144 of the 383 amusement parks in the U.S. were included in the survey. 

In a statement released Sunday, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, an industry trade association, stated that the likelihood of being seriously injured on an amusement ride at a permanent park in the U.S. is one in 24 million.

In this case, the Texas Department of Insurance performs annual safety inspections. In addition to inspections, parks and amusement operators are required to inspect rides daily and keep a log that must be made available for inspection to law enforcement on demand. 

However, under Texas law, an individual hired by the insurance company—and not by any government agency—must perform inspections. Additionally, as stated above, Texas only oversees insurance liability and inspections, not accident investigation. 

According to the Amusement Safety Organization, there have been four “significant injuries” on the Texas Giant in 2013 and seven injuries in 2012.  The majority of the injuries were related to whiplash and neck injuries. 

“There’s absolutely no federal oversight, no state investigative oversight or any local investigative oversight,” Ken Martin, an independent inspector and consultant on amusement park rides told NBC News Sunday.

While several attempts were made since 1999 to establish federal supervision and regulation of amusement parks, the measures have never passed the Senate. Former Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts introduced several bills that did not make it into law. 

“A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour,” said Markey in a statement on Sunday. “This is a mistake.”

According to an NBC News report, eight states (Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming) do not require permits or inspections for amusement park rides. Additionally, seven states (Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, and Texas) allow or require inspectors contracted by the park or insurance company.  Minnesota accepts inspections by park-contracted inspectors or those contracted by the State Agricultural society.  In Florida, permanent parks with 1,000 or more employees can contract their own safety inspectors.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Six Flags has retained Gerstlauer Amusement Rides in Munsterhausen, Germany, to investigate what caused Friday’s accident.


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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