Earlier this month, USA Today placed the Verruckt water side at Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kansas, on the top of its list of the “13 Best Outdoor Water Park Rides” in America. “Insanity,” the newspaper proclaimed of the attraction, which is the world’s largest water slide, dropping riders by 17 floors in a few terrifying seconds.
On Sunday, a few days after that article appeared, Caleb Schwab, the 10-year-old son of a Kansas state legislator, died on that ride. The circumstances of his death are still murky, though one Kansas City television station is reporting that parkgoers claim the ride’s harness wasn’t working properly. One thing, however, is almost certain: the dismal state of amusement park regulations in the United States, which allow attractions in Kansas and many other states to effectively evade any serious government safety oversight.
Even as amusement rides are getting more terrifying and death-defying by the year, the amusement park industry actively fights attempts at increased regulation. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, surveys reveal that 4 out of 5 of its member organizations say they view “state regulation as the biggest threat to their businesses.”
As Daniel Engber wrote in Slate in 2005, regulation of the industry has historically been lax. This changed in 1973, when the newly established Consumer Product Safety Commission assumed authority over the nation’s amusement parks. Amusement park owners chafed against federal oversight. In 1981, Congress passed legislation rescinding the CPSC’s authority over “permanent” rides, only allowing them to monitor temporary rides of the sort featured at pop-up carnivals and fairs.
This is known in the trade as the “roller-coaster loophole.” It leaves the amusement park industry, for the most part, only beholden to a less-than-adequate mishmosh of state laws. According to the New York Daily News, about half the states “require regular inspections from a government agency and allow the state governments to investigate accidents” at amusement parks.
Kansas, it will surprise no one to find out, isn’t exactly tough on theme parks. In an interview with USA Today in 2014, in fact, the Verruckt’s designer specifically cited the state’s lack of regulation regarding the height of rides as one reason the amusement park operator decided to place the world’s tallest water slide there. As for inspections, the state only requires an annual exam, one that is conducted privately and that the park doesn’t need to share with state authorities. There are no surprise spot checks, like there are in neighboring Missouri.
Again, this is certainly not a problem unique to Kansas. Six states have no amusement park regulations on the books at all. Moreover, the New York Daily News pointed out that Florida doesn’t require its most popular amusement parks—Disney World, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens—to submit to accident investigations.
One result? We have no idea how many Americans are injured annually at the nation’s amusement parks. Unless there is a horrifying accident like what happened in Kansas City on Sunday, we’re highly unlikely to hear about it.
In 2013, the journal Clinical Pediatrics published a paper analyzing emergency room admissions and concluded that between 1990 and 2010, an average of 4,423 children under the age of 17 in the United States are injured annually on amusement park rides, but that only 1.5 percent were hurt badly enough to be admitted to hospitals. The No. 1 cause of injuries? Falls from rides, responsible for almost one-third of the emergency room visits. Of course, this is likely only a small fraction of the injuries.
Don’t bother to look to the industry for stats. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the industry’s lobbying group, relies on self-reports for its accident statistics for an annual safety and injury survey of American amusement parks it conducts. Unfortunately, its numbers are less than comprehensive. In 2014, the year of the most recently released report, less than half the surveyed American amusement parks even bothered to submit any data.
Articles abound, telling consumers to take care and use common sense when visiting amusement parks. But taken all together, when it comes to the amusement park industry, the phrase “buyer beware” is a misnomer. In many cases, the buyer—that is, you and me—has no way of knowing how safe a particular destination or specific ride is. The opening of the Verruckt, for instance, was delayed a number of times over engineering concerns, but after it opened, it had no issue garnering tons of positive press. “Here’s Why You Won’t Fall Off the World’s Tallest Waterslide,” proclaimed the Huffington Post after riders were finally allowed on it.
No one should be put in a position of risking their life just because they want to take a ride on a water slide on a hot, summer day. Even if it’s a ride that’s advertised as offering the “ultimate in water slide thrills.” It’s shameful that state and federal regulators haven’t stepped in more forcefully to ensure that rides are safe.
In fact, the lack of regulation of roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, water slides, and other amusement park attractions might be the one thing more insane than the Verruckt. It’s too bad officials haven’t seen things that way.