Roller Coaster Death – Is Federal Oversight Needed?

A Fatal End To The 1999 Summer Tourism Season Raises the Question Whether New Jersey’s Regulation of Fixed-Site Amusements is Perfect Enough

Rutgers Law Journal, Volume 32, Number 1

Jeffrey S. Downs

Tragedy struck the Darien Lake Theme Park and Resort near Buffalo, New York, when a 29-year-old man fell to his death from a 200-plus-foot roller coaster. News stories focused on the fact that Sgt. James Hackemer was an Iraq war veteran who survived a roadside bomb attack in 2008 which left him with catastrophic injuries.

No Federal Oversight

The story garnered both local and national attention and has engendered the battle between advocates for uniform federal oversight of fixed-site amusements and industry insiders wishing to retain the status quo. It may be shocking to many that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) has no oversight over fixed-site amusements, but it is true.

The 1981 amendments to the definition of consumer products, passed in an era of budget cutting and de-regulation, specifically exclude amusements that are permanently fixed to a site. 15 U.S.C. § 2052(a) (5).

Regulation Loopholes

Notwithstanding the traveling amusement rides and carnivals, the roller coasters and rides that you and your family enjoy do not have any consistency as to regulation and safety requirements. Thus, depending on which state you travel to, the roller coaster you choose to ride may not be subject to any regulation at all. Even more disturbing is the fact that a ride that has fatally injured one or more can be dismantled, re-branded and sold, or sent to a sister amusement park in a state with little or no regulation.

The CPSC currently serves as a clearing house regarding a listing of ride malfunctions and safety information for traveling amusements and could similarly serve the same function for fixed-site amusements. The benefits of federal oversight would not stop there, but would include the product recall function that would be the only link between states to preempt the continued operation of an identical ride in another state.

Opportunity for Common Ground

Nevertheless, the debate should continue and whether you fall on the side of federal oversight and consistency among states as to safety regulations, or continued deregulation of the fixed-site amusement industry, one common ground is present, each state must presently take action to promulgate amusement ride safety protocols that should include, among other things, increased ride inspections, better operator training and certification, and increased penalties for non-compliance.

In the end, it is the safety of you and your family on the line.

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