Carnival rides with names like Zillerator and Kamikaze are meant to induce spine-chilling screams, but some parents are feeling genuine anxiety about allowing their children to climb aboard after an accident last week at the Calaveras County Fair.
Twenty-three people were injured May 16 when a ride called the Yo-Yo broke. The swing-style chairs collided and the ride's long chains became entangled, dragging passengers to the ground. Three victims were hospitalized overnight.
The accident has prompted heightened awareness about the safety of rides. Public safety officials in Massachusetts and Illinois, for instance, this week ordered operators of the Yo-Yo in those states to stop using the equipment until it is examined.
The ride is made by Kansas-based Chance Rides Manufacturing. A Chance official has said the company stands by the safety of its ride.
Another accident involving the Yo-Yo occurred in 2000 in Philadelphia, when a chain snapped and injured six people by striking their heads and backs.
James Barber, spokesman for the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, said the Yo-Yo has been around for about 35 years with very few problems. About 100 are operating in the nation and overseas, he said.
"It has been a good ride," he said. "Every ride has had problems at one time or another, but by and large, it has been a good ride."
Still, the Calaveras County accident has shaken some parents as they look forward to summer fair season in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, when thousands of people are expected to attend area events. The San Joaquin Fair begins June 18; the Stanislaus and Merced county fairs start in July.
Parents' safety expectations
Modesto resident Rebekah Greges said she expects carnival operators to meet "reasonable standards" for safety, and she won't be taking her young son on any amusement rides until she's assured they are safe.
"When you put kids on a ride, it is like putting them in a car on the highway, and the (carnival operators) need to be ready for that," said Greges as she watched her 2½-year-old son, Michael, at the Stanislaus County Library.
He's too young to ride the faster, more thrilling attractions that appeal to the pre-teen and teenage set, Greges said, but she's concerned he may stand up or get hurt on a kiddie ride if operators aren't careful.
Carnival owners do not want to damage their reputation by engaging in unsafe practices, Barber said. He said most carnival rides cost $250,000 to $3 million, so it is in the interest of operators to make sure they get a return on their investment by keeping it running safely.
"It is self-preservation," said Barber, who works as an inspector for insurance companies that underwrite carnival operators. "They do the best they can, and 99.9 percent do a bang-up job of taking care of equipment."
Amusement ride operators in California are required by state law to perform daily checks on equipment. Once a year, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health inspects the rides.
There are other layers of protection, too. Insurance companies hire inspectors to determine rates and liability coverage, and fair industry associations have their own safety certifications.
The company that operated the rides at the Calaveras County Fair, Oroville-based Brass Ring Amusements' Midway of Fun, last was inspected by Cal-OSHA in May 2007, said agency spokeswoman Kate McGuire.
"They were coming right up on their annual inspection date before the accident occurred," McGuire said. The agency is investigating why a mechanical failure in the machine's hub disrupted its rotation. The investigation is expected to take at least two months.
The company had two less serious accidents on different rides six years ago, including one at the Stanislaus County Fair in which a boy broke his wrists in 2002, the agency said.
Company owner Harry Mason has said the prior incidents were operator error, and in his 31 years in business, he said he has never seen a mechanical failure like the one that collapsed the Yo-Yo.
Fair industry insiders and consumer activists say parents can take steps to protect their children.
"First and foremost, read the signs to make sure children are proper height to ride or enter on the ride," said Barber, with the amusement ride safety group. "Some parents feel their kids are almost tall enough, so they should be allowed. The height requirements are there for a reason."
Use common sense
Check the restraining device to make sure it fits, or watch the operators to ensure that they are testing the devices on all passengers before the ride starts, he said.
"There's a lot of common sense things they can do as a parent to make sure their child is going to be as safe as possible," Barber said.
That includes looking closely at the person operating the ride, said Jason Herrera, director of Amusement Safety Organization, a nonprofit group that conducts independent reviews of carnivals and amusement parks on behalf of consumers.
Herrera said he formed the group, which tracks accidents on amusement rides, after his cousin was injured at Disneyland. In 2008, there have been 23 accidents worldwide that have resulted in eight deaths of riders or workers, and dozens of injuries, according to the group.
Aside from scoping out equipment, consumers should watch the carnival workers because they are in charge of pressing the emergency button to stop the ride if something goes wrong, Herrera said.
"If a carnival operator looks out of it, or something just doesn't look right, skip the ride," said Herrera, who said his group has documented carnival workers who were intoxicated on the job.
8 injuries per 1 million riders
Carnival operators contend that they take every precaution to keep riders safe, and the number of accidents is very small compared with the millions of people who enjoy amusement rides throughout the year.
Andrea Owen, the marketing director of Butler Amusements of Fairfield, which operates the carnival rides for the Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced county fairs, said parents have no reason to be concerned.
"We try in the industry to be really, really safe," Owen said. "It is our No. 1 concern. They are inspected all of the time, and we are big on maintenance as well."
Butler's staff are mostly longtime employees who are regularly evaluated and trained through safety seminars, she said. The company has on-site safety coordinators, electricians, operators and supervisors who inspect rides daily.
"It is our full-time job to make sure everything we operate is safe," Owen said. "We're a family-owned company, and so our children are riding those rides. There are Butlers riding those rides."
Owen said Butler has received a "Circle of Excellence" designation for its safety record through the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, a nonprofit industry group based in Florida that represents more than 5,000 members.
The association claims that mobile amusement rides are among one of the safest forms of public recreation.
About 300 million riders are on amusement rides each year, the association said. An estimated 2,500 ride-related injuries were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 2004, the group said, amounting to roughly eight injuries for every 1 million riders.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over carnival rides that are transported from location to location, but it does not have power over fixed-site attractions such as theme parks.
Days before the Calaveras County accident, a 14-year-old girl whose feet were severed by an amusement park ride made a plea in Washington, D.C., for lawmakers to change the rules to give federal safety regulators power over fixed-site attractions.
Kaitlyn Lassiter's feet were severed after cables on the Superman Tower of Power ride at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom snapped during the summer. Her family is suing the park, claiming that it failed to maintain the ride and ensure riders' safety. Six Flags has denied liability.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.