Government & Politics

Senate passes amusement ride regulations after Verrückt death, sends bill to Brownback

Service celebrates life of Caleb Schwab

A steady stream of mourners flowed into the Life Mission Church in Olathe on Friday for the memorial service for 10-year-old Caleb Thomas Schwab, who died Sunday while riding the world’s tallest water slide at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansa
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A steady stream of mourners flowed into the Life Mission Church in Olathe on Friday for the memorial service for 10-year-old Caleb Thomas Schwab, who died Sunday while riding the world’s tallest water slide at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansa

The Kansas Legislature has given final approval to a bill strengthening the law on amusement ride inspections following the death of a 10-year-old boy last summer on the world’s tallest water slide.

The bill now goes to Gov. Sam Brownback.

The Kansas Senate agreed Friday to pass the House substitute for Senate Bill 70, which would include new insurance and inspection requirements for rides in Kansas, along with permit and registration fees for those rides.

Republican lawmakers who helped push the bill through the legislative process said the state’s law for amusement rides was weak and needed to be changed.

Only three lawmakers in the Legislature opposed the bill after Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, gave an emotional speech to colleagues on the House floor last week in support of the legislation.

His son, Caleb Schwab, died last August riding the Verrückt, a 17-story water slide at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan.

But some senators hesitated before agreeing to send the legislation to Brownback.

Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Republican who voted for the bill, said she was still concerned that the Senate never debated the bill.

“My concern is, are we going to give people a false sense of security by passing it,” Sykes said.

The bill passed in the Senate on a final vote of 35-2.

If the bill becomes law, amusement rides will need to be inspected by experienced inspectors. That group includes licensed engineers with two years of experience in the amusement ride field or people with five years of experience in the amusement ride field and an inspection background.

The rides also could be inspected by people who have passed a certain level of outside training by national certification groups.

The rides will need to be inspected every year by those inspectors. Ride operators would also would be required to inspect their rides on a daily basis.

The bill also calls for an investigation if someone’s death on an amusement ride is connected to a major malfunction. Under current law, the rides are mostly self regulated and there is little state oversight.

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said the current Kansas law works more like a registration process than an inspection process.

“I think when people go to an amusement park, or they ride a ride, or they put their kids on a ride, that there’s an assumption made that somebody has looked at this, somebody has inspected it, somebody has looked at the engineering to see if it works,” Longbine said. “And in reality, in Kansas, that’s probably not the case.”

The bill may reach too far, Longbine said.

“But given the situation that’s happened, I don’t think we want the next kid to have a similar fate because we felt the regulations were too tight,” Longbine said.

But on first glance, a Philadelphia lawyer with a focus on amusement park litigation said the changes passed by lawmakers did not go far enough.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Jeffrey Reiff said about the bill. “It’s not a big enough step. I’m pleased to see there’s some progress made, but I don’t think … to me it seems like just a gesture to say, ‘OK, we’re going to make a change.’ But it’s not a big enough change.”

Investigations by The Star after Caleb’s death found that there was little government oversight for amusement rides in Kansas. The Star also found that there was little critical consideration by outside officials of the 168-foot-tall Verrückt’s safety before it opened as a major attraction in the summer of 2014.

During a news conference Friday, Brownback did not definitively say he would sign the bill. But, he said, “I will be following (Schwab’s) lead and recommendation on that bill.”

During his speech last week, where he recalled family memories and talked about his son, Schwab said the bill was “really not about Caleb. … It’s for the next kid who goes someplace in Kansas for a fun weekend.”

The Verrückt water slide has been closed since Caleb’s death. Schlitterbahn plans to tear it down.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

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