Six Flags Trade Group Routinely Lobbied Against Federal Oversight of Amusement Park Rides

The trade association that represents the interests of amusement parks such as Six Flags Entertainment Corporation – which recently experienced a fatal roller coaster accident– has lobbied against efforts to impose federal safety regulations at amusement parks for years, lobbying records show.

The Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), of which Six Flags is a member, has frequently lobbied against a federal bill that would extend jurisdiction of fixed-site amusement park rides to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Currently, the federal commission oversees “mobile, or portable” rides at traveling amusement parks, such as carnivals and fairs, but fixed-park rides are usually regulated at the state or local level or by insurance companies, if they are regulated at all.

Rosy Ayala-Goana, 52, plunged to her death last week while riding the Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Texas. Questions over her death – which Six Flags is investigating – have sparked renewed calls for federal oversight of amusement park rides.

Every year, from 1999 to 2011, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) unsuccessfully proposed the “National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act” while serving in the House of Representatives. Markey recently joined the U.S. Senate after winning last month’s special election for John Kerry’s vacated seat.

"While the cause of this tragic accident is still unknown,” Markey said in an emailed statement, “one thing is clear: Roller coasters that hurtle riders at extreme speeds along precipitous drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight.”

Lobbyists representing corporations in the amusement-park industry have repeatedly thwarted Markey’s efforts. Chief among them has been the IAAPA, which according to its website, is the largest international trade association for permanent amusement facilities around the world and represents industry professionals from more than 97 nations.

A spokeswoman for the IAAPA told The American Independent that “safety is the number one priority for the amusement park industry.”

“IAAPA supports efforts that would TRULY enhance safety,” IAAPA media relations manager Colleen Mangone emailed. “There is no evidence federal oversight would improve on the already excellent safety record of the industry. In fact, a panel of experts including ride safety experts, leading doctors, and biodynamic consultants convened by then Rep. Markey himself concluded it is unlikely a federal agency could match the effectiveness of the current system.

When pressed for details about the panel – which the IAAPA has touted in the past as evidence that federal oversight is unnecessary – Mangone sent along a news release from February 2003, about a panel Markey and other members of Congress had convened to study the correlations between brain injury and roller coaster rides. Among the panel’s findings, as reported in the release, were that “roller coaster rides pose a health risk to some people some of the time,” that “existing data is insufficient,” and that “the risk of brain injury from a roller coaster is not in the rides, but in the riders.” The panel indeed noted “it is unlikely that a federal agency could match the amusement park industry’s self-monitoring,” but the focus on their review was on brain injuries, not general safety.

Mangone confirmed that IAAPA has lobbied on Markey’s bill every year it was introduced, though she could not say how much the association has spent on this effort.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the IAAPA has reported about $8.2 million in total lobbying expenditures for a range of policy issues related to the lodging and tourism industry since 1999.

Both the amusement park association and Six Flags share the same lobbying firm, the D.C.-based Williams & Jensen, PLLC, which, according to its website, represents “companies and associations that have issues before the Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC).”

Following Friday’s fatal accident involving Rosy Ayala-Goana, who fell from the world’s steepest roller coaster, at Six Flags Over Texas outside Dallas, the senator has renewed his call for federal oversight at amusement parks, saying theme-park roller coasters need tougher regulations.

“Currently, a patchwork of regulations governs the oversight of these fixed-site amusement parks,” Markey continued. “We need to close this ‘roller coaster loophole’ and ensure federal authorities can investigate these accidents and order necessary safety improvements when necessary to prevent injuries."

Illustrating this “patchwork of regulations,” NBC News, in a recent survey of state codes, reported that seven states, including Texas, accept safety inspections from insurance companies or inspectors employed by or contracted by the theme park. Other states require no permits or inspection for amusement park rides, NBC News reported.

Mangone insisted that serious or fatal injuries at theme parks are “extremely rare.”

Quoting from a recent survey prepared for the IAAPA by the nonprofit National Safety Council on Research and Statistical Services Group, Mangone said, “There are approximately 400 fixed-site amusement parks nationwide. Approximately 300 million guests safely enjoyed 1.7 billion rides at U.S. amusement parks. The chance of being seriously injured on a fixed-site ride at a U.S. amusement park is 1 in 24 million. The chance of being fatally injured on an amusement ride in the U.S. is 1 in 750 million.”

Markey isn’t alone in calling for federal oversight.

A former board member of the IAAPA was quoted in Peter Greenberg’s 2008 book Don’t Go There!: The Travel Detective’s Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World, explaining his changed position on federal regulation of amusement park rides. Greenberg wrote that in 2007, Markey’s office had received a letter from Jim Prager, who identified himself as “a former senior executive, board member and stockholder in the amusement park industry and a former board member of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.”

“I now support CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] regulation of amusement park rides,” Prager wrote. “Amusement park rides are often haphazardly conceived and designed and then engineered and manufactured by small firms with limited resources in states and in countries other than the communities where the rides are installed.”

And in the spring, the Center for Injury Research and Policy of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, released a study showing evidence of frequent injuries at amusement-park rides among children. The researchers found that from 1990 to 2010, about 93,000 children under 18 were treated in emergency rooms for amusement-park-related injuries, at an average of 4,423 injuries a year. The researchers were unable to compile amusement-park-related deaths.

“Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over mobile rides, regulation of fixed-site rides is currently left to state or local governments leading to a fragmented system,” said the study’s senior author and the center’s director, Dr. Gary Smith, in a statement about the study. “A coordinated national system would help us prevent amusement ride-related injuries through better injury surveillance and more consistent enforcement of standards.”

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The Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas, taken May 23, 2009 (Flickr/Kristy aka agingdragqueen).