The Kansas City, Kan., water slide where a 10-year-old boy died Sunday had not been inspected by the state since it opened two years ago, government records show.
Responsibility for inspecting Schlitterbahn water park rests primarily with its owners, not any state or federal agency. Schlitterbahn officials say they inspect the ride every day. Verrückt, the world's tallest water slide, also gets checked by a certified inspector at least once a year.
But Schlitterbahn is not required to routinely forward that professional inspector’s report, commissioned by the water park, to overseers in Topeka. Rather, it’s kept on file in case of an audit.
It’s a pattern repeated across the country, where the federal government has been removed from amusement park safety, substituted by rules that vary from state to state and that industry critics say don’t ensure robust regulation.
In Kansas, the rules stem from the 2009 Amusement Ride Act, which requires rides with a permanent location, such as the Verrückt, to be inspected at least once a year. The state can audit those records.
“Amusement rides shall be randomly selected each quarter by the department for records audit by location,” the statute reads. “A permanent amusement ride shall not be subject to more than two records audits during the six-month period from the date of the last records audit.”
Amusement ride inspectors must be certified by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials. On its website, the association lists hundreds of members, some of whom work for amusement parks or insurance companies across the country.
Doug Conlan said he inspected Schlitterbahn before retiring from Haas & Wilkerson Insurance in 2013, roughly a year before the Verrückt opened.
“Nobody will take this more seriously than Schlitterbahn,” he said. “They’re just that kind of an organization.”
In a statement announcing that the park would open Wednesday, but Verrückt would not, the park said: “Safety is our top priority at Schlitterbahn. All rides are inspected daily before opening.”
State Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican who is chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations, said she wasn’t aware of the state’s relatively small role in amusement ride regulation.
“It does seem like there’s limited oversight, but I’m not sure why that is,” Schmidt said.
The Star placed an open-records request regarding Schlitterbahn inspections on Monday, but hadn’t heard back from state officials late in the day. The Topeka Capital-Journal made a similar request and reported that the state’s last inspection came in 2012. The park is required to make regular visual inspections of its rides daily, but the inspector who conducted the 2012 review said he found no data on those inspections, which are not public records.
From gut-spinning roller coasters to mega-drop water slides, safety rules belong to the states.
The federal government only regulates mobile, or traveling, amusement park rides. Think carnivals. Fixed rides, such as those at Worlds of Fun or Schlitterbahn, fall to various regulatory agencies in the states where they’re located.
In Kansas, that oversight falls to the state Department of Labor’s Industrial Safety and Health Division. In Missouri, the job goes to the state’s Division of Fire Safety, overseen by the same staff person who checks on the safety of elevators. In Texas, where Schlitterbahn is headquartered, it’s the Texas Department of Insurance.
Federal officials began some regulation of the industry in 1973. But that task moved out of the hands of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1981 when industry lobbyists successfully argued that fixed-site amusement rides shouldn’t be looked at as consumer products.
Federal officials still keep ongoing estimates of deaths and injuries tied to amusement parks. The CPSC surveys random hospital emergency rooms and then extrapolates those numbers to project the number of injuries tied to various events. Deaths for amusement park rides mostly don’t show up because the numbers are small and many of those cases wouldn’t involve a hospital emergency room.
But the number of estimated injuries from commercial water slides appears to be steadily on the rise. The agency estimated more than 7,200 water slide injuries for 2015. That’s far more than the year before, and the estimate could reflect a statistical aberration. Still, the numbers appear to be climbing, from just under 3,000 water slide injuries in 2000 to nearly 4,400 in 2014.
Some in Congress have pressed to expand the CPSC role in overseeing the safety of amusement parks. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who was formerly a U.S. representative and is now a U.S. senator, has repeatedly introduced bills that would return authority over ride safety to the agency, plugging what he has called a “safety loophole.” They’ve not passed.
Meantime, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA, has fought such efforts. Records show the group spent at least $180,000 lobbying against CPSC authority over rides from 2012 though 2015. The group spent similar amounts in earlier years on lobbying, but records from that era do not specify what matters the industry group was fighting for or against.
Caleb Schwab’s death on the Verrückt, said one safety advocate, “is an argument for a national system.”
“Consumers assume when they get on something like this that it’s safe,” said Nancy Cowles, the director of children’s product safety advocacy group Kids in Danger. “They’re not engineers or safety experts. They don’t have the time or the ability to judge the safety. … They’re working on the assumption that somebody in government has checked it out.”
The lack of federal oversight, she said, creates an uneven patchwork of laws and inspections that doesn’t promise uniform safety measures or the collection of data that might point out troubling trends.
What passes muster in one state won’t in another, said amusement ride analyst and consultant Ken Martin.
“We need something consistent across each and every state,” said Martin, who testifies for both plaintiffs and amusement park companies in civil cases. “Some of the states started good programs and some of the states started no programs. … Some check rides just at the start of the season and some do multiple spot checks.”
Physics, geometry and g-forces involved in a ride that drops people from great heights can be nearly inscrutable, he said. What checks out on paper typically gets corrected when a crash dummy with electronics slides down a ride.
The 2014 opening of the 168-foot-high Verrückt was delayed several times, something park management said at the time was routine tweaking. The rafts were made for three people instead of four. Netting around the chute was added. Officials said testing took longer than expected and cited mechanical issues with the conveyor belt that hoists rafts to the top.
Together, say analysts, the state-by-state regulations pave a haphazard path toward best practices.
“A federal system would help us to see what kind of injuries are happening so we could see what to do to prevent them,” said Tracy Mehan, the manager of translational research in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “It would make all of the parks safer.”
She was co-author of a 2013 study that looked at a range of amusement park ride injuries — although not those from water slides — that led 20 children a day during the summer to be rushed to emergency rooms.
“The insurance industry has guidelines that it expects parks to follow,” she said. “Even there, it depends on who’s insuring you and what kind of coverage you have.”
The Windseeker ride at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, Calif., malfunctioned twice in 2012, leaving riders dangling 300 feet above the ground. There were no injuries, but the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health shut down the ride pending an investigation into technical problems. The ride was ultimately moved to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. It’s been renamed the Steelhawk and has operated without incident.
A Worlds of Fun spokesman referred all questions to the IAAPA, which did not return calls for this story.
Worlds of Fun has had one death from a ride accident, under different ownership at the time, when a 14-year-old girl fell from the Timber Wolf roller coaster in 1995. Her mother ultimately received a $200,000 settlement from the then-owner of the park and the roller coaster manufacturer.
IAAPA, as the industry organization, has made clear that it wants less regulation, not more. Its website promises an initiative this year lobbying in states where the industry feels most threatened.
“Member surveys indicated 79 percent of members see state regulation as the biggest threat to their businesses,” the trade group said.
The Star’s Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.