Amusement park safety advocates are renewing their call for national oversight of roller coasters after a passenger fell to his death in Massachusetts this month.
The lap restraint system on that ride was manufactured by a company whose restraints have figured into other thrill-ride deaths since 1999, including one at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park.
Within days of the May 1 accident at Six Flags New England, Massachusetts officials suspended all rides with the same T-shaped lap bar restraints. But at amusement parks across the country, rides with similar restraints continue to operate. There is no federal agency to track such deaths or order a nationwide shutdown.
Information about any similar circumstances surrounding the deaths is shared only anecdotally among state regulators.
"It's time for a national solution," said Kathy Fackler, founder of Saferparks, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for amusement park safety. Fackler founded it in 2000, two years after her son injured his foot on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
"State regulation -- even when it's working as well as possible -- only fixes the problem locally in the ride. There's not even a national ride registry," she said. "We have no idea where those T-bars are and who is operating them."
The issue of monitoring roller coaster safety -- an ongoing debate within the amusement park industry -- was revived after a T-bar lap restraint and seat belt failed to contain a 55-year-old rider on Six Flags' Superman roller coaster in Agawam, Mass.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has proposed a bill each of the last five years that would grant oversight of amusement parks to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He said the recent Superman accident at Six Flags exposed serious flaws in the system -- an allegation supported by consumer advocates and some safety officials in other states.
His proposed legislation has languished in a commerce subcommittee without reaching the House floor for a vote.
Prompted by the same accident, Fackler headed to Washington earlier this month to meet with Markey and the staffs of the House Labor and Commerce committees.
State regulators, meanwhile, are questioning how to respond to roller coaster safety incidents outside their jurisdictions.
In California, ride inspectors are following developments in the Superman investigation and an accident in Wales, where last month a 16-year-old girl died after falling out of a water-plunge ride called Hydro.
Both rides used restraints made by the Switzerland-based firm Intamin, the same manufacturer who made the T-bar restraint used on a Knott's roller coaster, Xcelerator.
The Knott's fatality, in 2001, occurred when a 40-year-old Duarte woman fell out of a different ride, Perilous Plunge. That ride's restraint system was then redesigned. In August 1999, a 12-year-old boy died after slipping from restraints on Intamin's Drop Zone Stunt Tower at Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara.
Depending on the outcome of those investigations and their own research, California inspectors say that they could take action on Xcelerator.
"We are in communication with Knott's about that ride and the restraint system and whether there are issues that warrant closure of the ride," said Dean Fryer, spokesman for the Department of Occupational Safety and Health.
Intamin officials did not return calls requesting comment.
The amusement park industry says there are existing layers of regulation -- from state inspections to an independent body that adopts national ride safety standards to self-imposed reporting standards -- that monitor the industry. Information is readily shared and communicated on a nationwide basis, industry officials said.
"It makes no sense to dedicate over-stretched federal dollars to what is already a thorough and capable oversight process," said J. Clark Robinson, director of the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions, in a statement issued after the Six Flags accident.
State officials say they would benefit from a national clearinghouse for accident and ride information.
"There certainly should be a better way to communicate something like this across the country," said Thomas G. Gatzunis, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety.
Bill Connolly, Gatzunis' counterpart in New Jersey's division of codes and standards, agreed: "We're really at the mercy of what gets on the Internet or what gets in our news clips. While that's good, it would be better if there were a national reporting requirement."