Can state fair rides be safe as well as thrilling? Check, check and check

Published February 8 2018
Updated February 8 2018

TAMPA — The thrill of a fair ride lies in the sense of risk that something might go wrong.

Will it?

Rest assured, say operators of the Florida State Fair. Once the midway opens at 1 p.m. Thursday for its run through Feb. 19, all will end well when the RC 48 Coaster rises 70 feet toward its plunge and the Cliffhanger simulator leaves feet dangling during a "hang glider" rider

Still, some fair-goers may feel a heightened sense of risk after a man was killed and seven people were injured six months ago when a gondola broke from the pendulum of the Fire Ball ride at the Ohio State Fair.

Don’t judge the industry from one tragedy, advises Tom Dorgan, president of Brooksville’s MAH Consulting, an amusement ride safety adviser.

"Look at the number of times people ride rides a year — hundreds of thousands," Dorgan said. "Compare that to the number of accidents. You’re more likely to get hurt on a bicycle than a ride."

It’s a message that stings in the Tampa Bay area, a national leader with 22 bicyclists killed in 2017.

But that number is equal to all the people known to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to have been killed on portable- and fixed-site amusement park attractions since 2010 — on all rides, arcades, bounce houses, even corn mazes. The commission also reported 30,900 injuries in 2016 but it doesn’t break down how serious they were.

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It’s true that Florida is considered one of the safest states for state fair rides, said Charles Spinner, a local injury attorney whose clients include those hurt at attractions.

"It’s because Florida has a good inspection process overseen by the Department of Agriculture," Spinner said. "They check everything thoroughly."

The inspection process starts with triple-checking during setup — first by trained fair workers; next by state employees with backgrounds in structural, electrical or mechanical inspections; and finally by an independent company with a similar technical resume.

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Then every day, before the midway opens, fair employees re-inspect the rides and the independent company double checks their work.

Hiring a third party for independent checks is recommended by ASTM International, an organization that develops and publishes voluntary technical standards across a wide range of industries, materials, products, systems and services.

Safety standards for amusement parks are updated annually when an estimated 300 people from the industry gather at an annual convention, said ASTM spokesman Nathan Osburn.

"Florida easily has one of the most rigorous procedures," said Jonathan Brooks, president of North Carolina-based Wagner Consulting Group, the Florida State Fair’s third-party inspector this year. "The thought is, the more eyes the better."

Brooks estimates that nine to 12 states do not follow ASTM standards.

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But Ohio does. At least seven inspectors and ride operators looked at the Fire Ball, according to news reports, but no one noticed the gondola arm had rusted inside.

What’s more, not all accidents can be blamed on mechanical failure.

In 2015, an operator at the Florida State Fair failed to latch a restraint properly so a Tampa woman was thrown into the line of people waiting for the Hit in 2000 ride. The ride spins in a circle as it gradually picks up speed. It soon reopened, except for the car the woman was riding in.

"When an unfortunate incident occurs, it receives high profile attention," Dorgan said. "But you’re more likely to get hurt by hurrying to get on or off the ride or slipping and falling."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.