By Amir Vera, CNN
Questions always arise when tragedy strikes.
So when a 14-year-old boy fell to his death on March 24 on an amusement park ride in Orlando, Florida, there were questions about who should be held responsible and how the incident happened in the first place.
Tyre Sampson fell from the Orlando FreeFall drop tower, which takes riders up and then drops them nearly 400 feet at speeds that reach more than 75 mph, according to ICON Park, where the incident happened.
Two seats on the FreeFall were manually adjusted “presumably, to allow for larger riders,” according to an April 18 statement by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson based on a report produced by Quest Engineering & Failure Analysis, Inc., a forensic engineering firm hired to investigate the incident.
One of the ride’s seats had been loosened, adjusted and tightened for a restraint that was 4 inches more than the normal opening range, the report said. The FreeFall manufacturer’s guideline puts a rider’s weight limit at 250 pounds.
“My son was 6’5, 340. So, he’s a big guy,” said Tyre’s father, Yarnell Sampson.
His death is being investigated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services along with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and ICON Park.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of the larger issue of regulation in the amusement park industry, CNN examined safety reports and spoke with experts about park operations and why they don’t have federal oversight.
Who regulates amusement parks?
Typically, state agencies have oversight, according to Randy King, a safety consultant based in Houston, Texas, who has over 30 years of experience in the safety and amusement park industry.
When it comes to standardization of safety at parks, the industry relies on ASTM International, an organization that develops and publishes standards for a number of industries including amusement parks, he said.
Additionally, “almost everyone in the amusement industry” belongs to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), a trade group representing amusement parks, according to King.
The ASTM committee handling amusement parks meets twice a year, according to the organization’s website. The IAAPA releases a safety report annually for parks and holds expos and training for member organizations.
What’s the history behind the regulation system?
A state’s department of agriculture normally regulates amusement parks or at least fixed (or immovable) rides, according to Martin Lewison, an associate professor at Farmingdale University in New York who was dubbed by The New York Times as “Professor Roller Coaster.”
That’s because parks began as traveling businesses that would turn up at US agricultural fairs — farmers would show up with a prized pumpkin or cow and then a showman brought the rides, Lewison said.
“It was always the agricultural institutions that were in charge of these sorts of events and that led to a modern-day regulatory structure where — in most states — some branch of the state department of agriculture has oversight over fixed rides,” he said.
As the size of the amusement park industry ballooned in the last century, some elements came under federal supervision. But the industry balked at the oversight.
“(The) industry pushed back for many years on federal oversight on fixed amusement rides,” Lewiston said.
In the early 1980s, Congress determined that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission was only responsible for traveling rides.
The so-called “Roller-Coaster Loophole” did not sit well with some lawmakers. In 2001, then US Rep. (now Sen.) Edward Markey of Massachusetts called for oversight to be restored to the CPSC. Markey initially began his crusade to close the loophole in 1999, and has been looking to close it since.
“The reason there is no national clearinghouse to prevent ride injuries is clear — since 1981, the industry has escaped routine product safety regulation through a loophole in the law,” he said.
So, why aren’t amusement parks federally regulated?
King and Lewison say the answer to this is simple: The industry would not benefit from federal oversight.
“It could make things worse,” King said, adding that getting the federal government involved does not make things better.
To that point, Lewison said involvement from the feds would cost the industry too much.
“They would have to now deal separately with a federal regulatory agency that would suddenly become responsible for every fixed-site amusement ride in the United States,” he said.
There are thousands of fixed amusement rides across the country, many of which are family entertainment centers with go-karts and/or a kiddy roller coaster.
“The industry obviously doesn’t want that extra cost of dealing with a new set of rules and regulations because a lot of these companies are small companies that don’t make a huge amount of profits. There’s only so many Six Flags and Disneys out there,” Lewison said.
“So for them, it’s fairly easy to accommodate additional costs. But for many small businesses, which is the majority of the industry, any additional costs can be devastating in terms of their bottom line,” he said.
Both King and Lewison told CNN they thought state agencies were doing a great job regulating amusement parks.
“Safety culture is already heavily built into the industry,” Lewison said.
How often do people die on amusement park rides?
It’s very rare for someone to die, let alone get injured on a ride at an amusement park. The safety record of the amusement park industry is amazing, Lewison said, and ride designers are serious about their work and safety.
“The amusement industry operates with the understanding that one injury is one too many and there is an impressive effort made by industry safety professionals to enhance safety at our facilities,” said Jim Seay, president of the Baltimore-based Premier Rides and a member of the IAAPA safety committee.
“Ride fatalities are extremely rare which is why, like a plane crash, they are covered widely in the news,” Seay said. “Statistically you are safer riding the rides at an amusement park than most other forms of recreation and even the drive to the park although that doesn’t stop the efforts of industry safety experts to focus on making the industry even safer.”
The odds of being seriously injured on a fixed-site ride in the US is 1 in 15.5 million, the IAAPA said.
In other words, there are more chances of a person dying by bee stings or from a dog attack than being injured on an amusement park ride, according to statistics from the National Safety Council.
A 2020 IAAPA North American Ride Safety Report — in which it surveyed 162 facilities — said a majority (60%) of injuries came from family and adult rides.
The report also said there were 341 ridership-based injuries, though the report also added that the number is significantly lower than 2019 (1,294) because of the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on the amusement industry in 2020.
“These sorts of accidents are extraordinarily rare,” Lewison said. “You’re still more likely to die falling off a chair than dying on an amusement ride.”
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CNN’s Kevin Conlon, Alta Spells, Jason Hanna, Gregory Lemos, Jamiel Lynch, Leyla Santiago and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.