There is no official explanation yet as to why, on July 9, the 52-year-old grandmother was still in the ride area when the cars on the Joker's Jukebox, a whirling "teacup"-style ride, began spinning, striking her in the head and abdomen. Donaldson bled to death in an ambulance. Six Flags is investigating the incident, but has ruled out mechanical failure.
New Orleans hasn't been the only city affected by the tragedy. In Washington, D.C., Donaldson's death has fueled an already heated debate on whether the federal government should step in to regulate the nation's amusement parks. "This is the third amusement-park death this year," says David Moulton, an aide to U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, who has introduced a bill to have the federal government do just that.
Though Markey's bill aims to prevent injuries due to mechanical failure of rides, not human error (a likely cause of Donaldson's accident), supporters say the legislation would create a national database of all causes of injury at amusement parks, resulting in accident prevention across the board.
Theme parks in the United States are now policed by state and local government agencies in 42 states and by the amusement-park industry itself -- which it says demands stricter safety protocols than anything the federal government could come up with.
Markey became involved with amusement-park safety in August of 1999, when four people died in a five-day span on roller coasters in the United States. After the four fatalities, he drafted and introduced the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act, which would put amusement parks under the oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Those tragedies came to his attention because there was not going to be any investigation of those deaths by the nation's chief product safety agency," says Moulton, who's working with the congressman on the legislation. "The reason was, the industry had a special-interest loophole in the law that prevents such investigations from taking place."
Markey and his supporters call it the "Roller Coaster Loophole" -- two lines inserted into the federal Consumer Product Safety Act in 1981, exempting "fixed-site" amusement parks from the oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Other types of amusement parks, such as traveling carnivals and fairs, remain under the jurisdiction of the CPSC. The bill is backed by such groups as the Consumer Federation of America, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National SAFE KIDS Campaign.
Moulton says the exemption for "fixed-site" parks was the result of pressure by the theme-park industry, which pushed for it in 1981 and then successfully lobbied Congress to reject Markey's bill in 1999. "They say they're too safe to regulate," Moulton says.
"Most people, when they go to these parks, think they're regulated. If someone takes a ride on a bike or pushes a baby carriage around the block, the bike and baby carriage are subject to CPSC jurisdiction," he says. "But when they put a child on a machine that carries them 100 miles per hour or more, there's no jurisdiction, no oversight -- which is totally contrary to what people expect. It's preposterous."
Markey re-introduced the legislation this year. The bill, HR-2207, is now in the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The amusement park industry is fighting Markey's bill, saying no amount of federal oversight could improve upon what it calls an exemplary safety record. It has an ally in Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who believes that "a compelling case has not been made for federal regulation," says his spokesman, Ken Johnson.
Tauzin, chairman of the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee and a key vote on the bill's fate, supports the industry's position. "Each of the facilities is subject to one or more layers of inspection," Johnson says. "The state, risk control inspections by insurance companies, and fixed sites who check their rides daily."
Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the national trade organization for theme parks, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), says "the amusement park industry is a very regulated and responsible industry."
Theme parks follow safety standards outlined by a network of "interested parties," including the American Society for Testing and Materials, the ride manufacturers, insurance companies and IAAPA, she says. "There's virtually no safer form of recreation. We're looking at 300 million guests who take about 1.5 billion rides per year (in the United States), and there's roughly two fatalities a year on average."
Robertson estimated that there are approximately 2,500 injuries per year "and that could be everything from stubbing your toe walking in a park to getting injured on an attraction," she says. "The reporting system is not necessarily specific."
Each side of the debate presents different data on amusement-park injuries. The IAAPA cites an IAAPA/National Safety Council report called the 2001-2002 Fixed-Site Amusement Ride Injury Survey Analysis. The report is derived from voluntary surveys of IAAPA member parks and from surveys of emergency rooms nationwide by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The authors of the IAAPA/National Safety Council report acknowledge it's not a comprehensive study but an estimate based on the different data, saying that both the IAAPA and CPSC surveys, which they combined to get their figures, were flawed by reporting limitations. The final report estimates two fatalities and about 2,500 amusement ride injuries per year, as compared to the 6,700 injuries per year reported by the CPSC alone.
Still, the report said that "fixed-site amusement ride injury risk is 10 to 100 percent lower than for most common recreational and sporting activities" including football, bowling, golf or even shuffleboard. With just eight injuries per million participant days (as compared to basketball, which was highest in the survey with 876 injuries), "the number of injuries is low," the report says.
Supporters of Markey's bill dismiss the industry's claims of safety, saying that without mandatory reporting of injuries to a federal agency, it's impossible to tell whether the numbers are legitimate. The IAAPA/National Safety Council report was written by a consulting firm hired by the IAAPA, which Moulton says is part of the problem.
"There's no direct source of reliable data," he says. "They have decided to put together what they call an 'incident reporting program,' but the parks send their data to the industry trade association ... it has nothing to do with prevention. No one can find out what rides they occur in, what parks they occur in, no regulators can take any action -- it's just a joke."
The Markey bill adheres to the CPSC data, which bases its figures on emergency room reports. Those figures show a 95 percent increase in amusement-ride injuries over a six-year span from 1996 to 2001. According to the CPSC figures, Moulton says, mobile or traveling amusement parks (regulated by the CPSC) have a better safety rate than fixed-site parks.
Robertson, of IAAPA, says the jump in injuries is due to the dramatic increase of amusement-park rides and attendance. "Since 1997, parks have increased the number of rides by 240 million," she said. "There's been a tremendous rise in amusement parks, more attractions -- that's why those numbers continue to increase."
Bill supporters also cite National Safety Council figures that say more people were killed on roller coasters from 1997-2000 than on passenger trains, airline flights, or buses.
They also fear that if a mechanical defect is found on an amusement ride in one state, it won't necessarily be reported to theme parks in other states who own the same ride. "If I'm a regulator in New Orleans and find a design flaw, the most authority I have to do is fix it there. But I have no authority to go to other states with similar rides and have them fix it there," Moulton says. "Only a federal presence would ensure that."
Again, says the IAAPA's Beth Robertson, the theme-park industry has taken care of that potential problem. "The [American Society for Testing and Materials] standards require them to report, to the industry, accidents and ride-related defects, and they require them to notify any related facilities," she says. "The manufacturers would notify other places that they sold the ride to. In addition, IAAPA has initiated a national voluntary incident reporting system for fixed-site rides."
The widely divergent safety claims from both sides of the debate do point to a need for amusement parks to submit mandatory injury reports to one federal body, says Los Angeles journalist Robert Niles, creator of the Web site www.themeparkinsider.com. "The fact is that the number of people attending parks has been rising, up until the current recession, and it's entirely possible that as the number of people in parks rise, the number of accidents rise. Since we don't have an official source collection information, we don't have accounts on who's telling the truth," Niles says. "Until then, it's up to unofficial tallies of accidents to fill the gap."
Some unofficial tallies can be found on Niles' Web site, which he says gets about 15,000 hits per day, most by amusement-ride enthusiasts. The site contains theme-park news and asks readers for injury reports and feedback about parks and rides.
"It disturbs me that we're not keeping track of (injuries) and we're just essentially leaving it to the court system to oversee theme-park safety," Niles says. "These issues are being settled in lawsuits after people get injured, and I think it's always preferable to try and prevent an injury taking place than to sort out who's to blame in court afterward."
The Louisiana state fire marshal's office, which regulates all fixed-site and traveling amusement parks in the state, concluded its investigation of the Six Flags tragedy by asserting it was not caused by any mechanical failure of the Joker's Jukebox ride.
The absence of a mechanical defect would indicate the accident was likely caused by human error, either by the patron or the ride operator. "We're still reviewing the incident," Six Flags New Orleans spokeswoman Ann Wills says. "At this point it is still not clear why [Donaldson] was in the ride area and unfortunately, accounts of the event provide varying detail and perspective."
Should Markey's bill become law, it probably would not affect ride-operator training. Moulton, Markey's aide, says that employees are already under the auspices of the National Institute of Safety and Health, and that probably wouldn't change.
Most theme parks now follow the IAAPA's operator-training standards, and some state and local agencies that govern amusement parks have their own requirements for operator training.
Bob Cate, a mechanical safety manager with the Louisiana state fire marshal's office, says his office checks before the season to ensure that all ride operators have been trained and certified, "and during a spot check we verify that the ride operator has the documentation that he has been trained." The inspections and certifications are based on the ride manufacturers' standards for safe operation and training, he says.
The fire marshal makes two regular inspections of amusement parks per year -- one more than the law requires -- and unannounced spot checks as well. "We do the inspections all the way from mechanical, electrical -- the whole shooting match," Cate says.
The rides at Six Flags are also inspected by the park's engineers, according to Wills. "Six Flags routinely reviews every critical component of our rides using state-of-the-art technologies including stress-testing, X-rays of welds and use of ultrasound equipment to ensure our rides are safe. We inspect our rides, the state fire marshal's office inspects our rides, outside consultants inspect our rides, and our insurance provider inspects our rides."
Six Flags New Orleans, she says, "follows and exceeds the industry standard for ride-operator training." All its ride operators "undergo both written and practical training followed by testing and certification specific to their ride. All operators are certified and re-certified each year. The industry standard is set by ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials], which all theme parks in the U.S. abide by, including Six Flags."
In Louisiana, amusement parks have 24 hours to notify the fire marshal of any injury that requires overnight hospitalization, and 12 hours to report a fatality. The law also states that nothing is to be moved except to render first aid, Cate says, but the fire marshal's jurisdiction doesn't extend to park employees. "There's nothing written that requires us to do a drug or alcohol test." As per company policy, Six Flags conducted a drug test on the ride operator after the July 9 tragedy, but will not release the results.
According to Rep. Tauzin's office, the bottom line is that the amusement-park industry is the expert on keeping its rides safe -- and no amount of federal oversight can change that. "The CPSC has no expertise or experience in dealing with large technically complex fixed-site rides, nor does the CPSC have the resources to do quality inspections," says Tauzin's spokesman, Ken Johnson.
"We just don't believe federal inspection is needed. Last year there were 6,000 injuries at all amusement parks nationwide. Contrast that to 20,000 injuries at concerts. Are we going to regulate concerts, too?" he asks.
The theme-park industry doesn't necessarily believe federal oversight would make its safety record worse, says Robertson, the IAAPA spokeswoman. "But we really doubt they could make it better."