No Federal Regulations for Roller Coaster Safety

PHOTO: Six Flags Roller Coaster Death
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The death of a Texas woman who fell 75 feet from a roller coaster has raised questions about lax and inconsistent oversight of theme parks, highlighting the fact that no agency monitors the number of amusement park fatalities in America each year.

Rosa Ayala-Gaona fell to her death Friday afternoon from the top of the Texas Giant coaster at Six Flags Over Texas, after slipping out of a t-shaped lap bar on the ride.

She was 52 years old, and, according to one witness, had expressed concern about being properly strapped into the seat before the ride began.

"She goes up like this [lifts her arms] and then when it [the roller coaster] drops to come down, that's when it released and she just tumbled," Carmen Brown, who was on the ride with Ayala-Gaona, told ABC News.

Six Flags and the maker of the ride, German company Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, have said they will investigate the death themselves. Once police rule out any criminal activity in the death, no federal or local law enforcement authorities will investigate.

In fact, injuries and deaths on amusement rides at parks such as Six Flags, known as "fixed-place amusement rides," are not subject to inspection or investigation by any federal oversight committee the way traveling carnivals or rides are.

The fixed-place parks must abide by state and local laws, but have resisted any efforts for federal regulation, according to Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who has fought to have rides overseen by the federal government.

Following Ayal-Gaona's death on Friday, Markey said that families on summer vacations are assuming a huge risk because of a lack of federal regulations, and that there have been enough serious accidents to warrant federal intervention.

Markey, who did not respond to request for comment today, told ABC News in 2008 that the federal government should have oversight over all amusement rides, whether fixed-place or mobile.

"In short, the federal government has no role if there is a huge accident on a roller coaster going a hundred miles an hour where children are injured in one state to ensure that it is inspected, that the safety problem is corrected, and the other 49 states are then warned that there is a problem," Markey said.

Without federal regulations, different states can have different regulations for ride inspection and safety, including who is in charge of inspecting rides or investigating accidents and how the accidents are reported to the state or other parks.

In Texas, where Ayala-Goano died, no regulatory agency oversees rides, though the Texas Department of Insurance approves them and ensures they are inspected, according to ABC News affiliate WFAA. The inspection sticker for the Texas Giant was good through February, 2014.

With the lack of federal oversight comes a lack of nationwide data about theme park fatalities. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees carnival ride safety, has no jurisdiction over theme park rides and stopped collecting data on fatalities more than five years ago.

The Occupational Safety Hazard Administration, which oversees theme park rides in some states, only collects data on operator and employee fatalities and injuries, not those of customers.

Some researchers have tried to plug the gap in data collection, including Gary Smith, of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Smith has published studies documenting injuries from theme park rides, but has not published data about fatalities. In a paper published in May, Smith found an average of 4,423 injuries per year in amusement park riders under the age of 17.

You can find injury statistics for theme parks at Amusement Safety Organization.

According to the San Antonio Express News, an average of 230 people have been injured on Texas rides from 2000 to 2008, including 120 who broke bones, 60 who had their teeth chipped or knocked out, and four people who suffered amputations.

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