Fair rides meet high safety standards, experts say

By David Dykes
Business writer
Greenville News

Jerry Barber, a veteran of the amusement ride industry, has a simple safety tip for families headed for the Upper South Carolina State Fair over the next few days.

“This is many, many, many times the most important thing,” he said. “Fasten their seatbelt in their car on the way to the fair.”

The truth is, he said, “that car is so much more dangerous than amusement rides, it’s not even in the same ballgame.”

Amusement rides take center stage today as the Upper South Carolina State Fair opens its 11-day run at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway near Easley.

Amusement rides, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, are some of the safest recreational activities.

The injuries that do occur, according to experts, stem from rider misconduct.

“You get people running out while the ride’s running and trying to touch the girlfriend on the shoulder, or something like that, and they miss,” said Barber, who has designed and built amusement park rides all over the world and lives in Greenville.

Most states, including South Carolina, have mandatory regulations or inspection programs to ensure ride safety.

Minimal accidents

Duane Scott, the state’s administrator for the Office of Elevators and Amusement Rides, a division of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said he doesn’t have data on amusement ride accident rates in South Carolina.

But the accident rate is “very minimal,” he said.

Jim Knight, spokesman for the labor department, said, “When there’s an accident, the vast majority of the time it’s not the ride, it’s patron error, not following the instructions of the ride operator or doing some unsafe act on the ride.”

Scott has a budget of $875,000 for elevator and amusement ride inspection programs and his inspectors are trained in both areas. He has 12 state inspectors and about six licensed special inspectors.

Once amusement ride operators pass an inspection, they are given permits to operate, Scott said.

Before rides are open to the public, state inspectors check installations, structural soundness, passenger restraints, electrical safety and operating manuals, he said. They also check the rides during a couple of operating cycles, Scott said.

Operators also are required to perform regularly scheduled maintenance on their rides and must provide written documentation that the work has been performed, Scott said.

All the while, federal officials are reviewing mobile amusement-ride accidents that cause serious injury.

In 1998, for example, following an in-depth investigation into what caused a Reverchon Himalaya ride to eject three riders at a Texas rodeo, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued additional guidelines to ensure riders’ safety. One rider was killed and two others were seriously injured when the Himalaya’s lap bar failed in Austin.

After the incident, the commission issued three safety alerts to states for inspection of the ride in critical areas. Commission officials asked ride operators and inspectors to check eight specific components, including fastener pins, rubber shock absorbers and center spindles.

In a separate action, as a precautionary measure, the commission also urged all states to immediately inspect certain other mobile amusement rides in accordance with the manufacturer’s safety bulletin.

State inspections

While the agency has jurisdiction over the mobile rides that move from place to place, commission officials said states and local communities are responsible for inspections and oversight.

Joyce Brady, co-owner of Playworld Unlimited, an Alma, Mich.-based company that owns the midway rides that will be used at this year’s Upper State Fair, said her trained, traveling crews appear at about 30 events a year. The company has been working fairs and festivals for 26 years.

“We’re out there supervising and helping and making sure that things go smoothly,” she said.

“Every piece of equipment here has a manual,” she said. “And when you’re training somebody, they have to have read the manual and know what the safety procedures are during setup, what the safety procedures are during taking a piece of equipment down, as well as during operation, before they’re even able to run it.”

For his part, Barber knows the world of free-fall amusement rides and carousel rocking horses.

He operated an amusement ride manufacturing company for many years and ran an international school of amusement ride safety for 10 years.

Now 70, he has a company that specializes in financing for amusement park equipment.

An Ohio State graduate, he once taught high school physics and chemistry and was a high school principal.

He said his father owned a traveling carnival.

The reason amusement rides are so safe is something that’s “obvious to almost everybody, but nobody really notices it,” Barber said.

“With the exception of roller coasters, none of the rides go more than 25 miles an hour,” Barber said. “Now any kid can ride his bicycle at 25 miles an hour.”

“Really, they don’t need to worry much about amusement ride safety,” he said of the public. “Obviously, you can worry about an airplane taking off and falling on top of your house. You can worry about anything you want.”

There are 300 to 400 traveling carnivals in the United States but, statistically, the number of accidents “is extremely small,” Barber said.

On amusement rides, 5 percent of injury accidents are design-related, he said. In addition, 15 percent of the accidents are maintenance-oriented, he said.

The remaining 80 percent are caused by either riders or equipment operators, but mostly riders, Barber said.

The public also might not be impressed by carnival workers who have had to set up and tear down the rides “and they’ve still got grease under their fingernails,” Barber said.

They might not wear the same quality clothing the college kids do who work at amusement parks, he said.

However, “an awful lot of these kids working on the carnivals grew up on a farm,” he said. “They’re just much more — I’ll call it machinery-oriented. And that just makes a big difference in their awareness of any potential problem.”

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