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Theme Parks: a Lobbyist Joy Ride

November 26, 2000

The passage of theme park safety legislation last year in California was supposed to be an important breakthrough in a state where the industry had regulated itself for decades. The past year has instead seen little change, with delay after delay in adoption of the tough and specific regulations necessary for meaningful enforcement.

Industry representatives have honed their skills so effectively over the years that even after AB 850 was signed into law they were able to put off real scrutiny of their rides by stalling and splitting hairs during the current, prolonged implementation phase. An advisory committee that was supposed to broker regulations on accident reporting and inspection provisions was abandoned in midyear, leaving interested parties--including consumers--to conduct their own back-channel lobbying of state regulators.

Now the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency charged with oversight, is considering regulations that, among other things, incorporate an industry-crafted definition of what a serious accident is. Such an interpretation could leave unreported some notable injuries that the public should be aware of, such as whiplash.

Last week, the tension between consumer advocates and industry representatives over this impasse came into full view at an agency hearing in Oakland. The mother of a teenager who died in the collapse of a water slide confronted park operators with a demand that they look beyond the parsing of legal language. The bill's author, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), appeared to argue for a broader definition of what should be reported under the law.

On another front during the drafting of regulations, the industry has been battling to water down the provision for annual inspections. It's clear that in this arena too it regards the law not as a requirement for real change but as a point that can be lobbied. The objective often seems to be to keep independent oversight at bay and to preserve business as usual.

It is now up to the agency to make sure that there is some finality to this process of haggling over regulations. The spirit of the law is clear. California must have tough standards that provide maximum public information on ride safety at theme parks, while ensuring the independence and thoroughness of ride inspections.

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