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Theme Park Safety Bill Losing Force, Backer Says

Legislation: Revision would virtually eliminate state examinations, she says. But assemblyman denies changes weaken measure.

July 13, 1999|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A bill to regulate safety at amusement parks has been altered to the point that its most ardent backer is vowing to lobby against the changes.

The amendments to the bill by Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) would virtually eliminate the detailed state examinations of rides that it had required; instead, state inspectors would review amusement parks' internal records and look at the rides as they operate.

The amendments to the bill, filed late last week, came as a surprise to a La Jolla mother whose son had his toes amputated after a 1998 accident at Disneyland. The mother, Kathy Fackler, will be in Sacramento this week to lobby against changes in the legislation she worked to get passed in the Assembly.

Fackler said she will not sit "at Torlakson's table," but will speak when opponents of the measure are called at a hearing before a state Senate committee Wednesday. The same committee earlier this year approved a much tougher theme park regulation bill by Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda). Perata dropped the bill at Torlakson's request.

Perata said he had not seen the recent amendments, so could not comment on them.

Despite the changes in the bill, Torlakson contends that it has not been weakened, only changed to accommodate concerns raised in the Assembly and by a Senate committee consultant.

Before the changes, the bill required state inspectors to go into parks no more than twice every five years, to examine rides in detail, looking for design problems, signs of metal fatigue and other possible mechanical problems. Those inspections would have been supplemented with annual walk-throughs, in which an inspector looks at the park's files on rides and views them in operation.

Under the new version of the bill, those full inspections would be eliminated, to be replaced by a beefed-up annual look at a park's records and rides.

If a problem was noted, a more thorough inspection of the ride could be launched.

Torlakson said the change is warranted because theme park accidents are more likely to occur from faulty training and operation than mechanical difficulties.

"I'm pleased with the bill as it's moving forward and I think it's as strong as ever," he said.

But Fackler views the amendments as evidence of the theme park industry's influence over the process. In testimony at earlier hearings, representatives of the theme park industry complained about outside inspection.

An independent ride inspector and designer said the revised bill actually had more teeth in it because every ride would have an operational inspection annually.

The inspector, David Collins, said reviewing the park's repair and operating records, which would not be made available to the public, provided ample information of potential problems in the rides.

To inspect a ride bolt by bolt is enormously time consuming, Collins said. For example, daily inspections of the Earthquake ride at Universal Studios take eight people four hours a day.

Besides, the park wants to guard the proprietary information of its unique attractions, he said.

"They don't want [an] inspector who has no allegiance going out and passing along" problems to other parks.

A bill last year by Torlakson to regulate amusement parks died in committee. He was prompted to introduce a new bill this year after a Disneyland accident in December 1998. A Washington man died in that accident; his wife and a park worker suffered serious injuries.

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