Analyzing Amusement Park Safety After Teen’s Death

Photo by Thomas Stadler from Unsplash.

During the end of March, short clips of a horrific video were spread all around the internet. They show a dropper ride slowing down and descending, presumably in order to bring its riders back to the ground so that a new set of riders could have the same experience. As captured on the video, as the ride had descended halfway down the tower, a 14-year-old boy can be seen slipping out of his seat as horrified onlookers could only watch him plummet to the ground. It is difficult to imagine the accident that unfolded, and particularly what the boy and the onlookers went through. Yet the existence of the video shows exactly what happened, and documents the series of events that ended in Tyre Sampson’s death. Since he fell from a height equivalent to a five-story building, he died at the scene. Afterward, many questions were raised about what led to Sampson’s death, and whether it was preventable.

At first, scrutiny was focused on whether Sampson should have been allowed on the ride, as he weighed more than 300 pounds, which made it difficult for him to fit into the seats. Further, the drop tower’s manual stated that the maximum weight for a rider is 287 pounds, putting Sampson far above that limit, at which point he could have been turned away by the ride’s operators, but was not. That was because he fit into a seat, but only barely, with the ride’s safety check registering that his harness was properly secured. A marketing director for Slingshot Group even stated, “The ride will not operate if those checks are greenlighted. Again, everything was functioning properly when the ride started.” However, a later investigation showed that the sensor, which should have only allowed the harness of the seat to have an opening of three inches, was actually adjusted manually by an unidentified operator to allow an opening of over six inches. That meant that when the ride was slowing down and forces shifted, the harness could have had its opening be at a maximum of 10 inches, which would have provided more than enough space for Sampson to fall out from under the harness and the seat entirely. Also in question is the ride’s inspection, which had taken place less than six months before the accident. The inspector did not inspect the ride while it was in operation, as it is not required unless the ride had already failed, which sounds counterintuitive.

The family of Sampson sued the ride’s operators, landlord, and manufacturer for negligence as a result of his death, with their attorney alleging that had there been seatbelts on the ride in addition to the harness, which would have cost $22 per seat to install, Sampson would not have fallen out of his seat that night. Also, the family of Sampson, including his mother, intends to lobby for Congress to pass legislation to make theme parks safer. Knowing all of that, it is worth learning more about existing federal and state laws governing theme park safety, since theme parks are located all over the country, including in Washington.

In general, the federal government takes a hands-off approach to regulating theme park rides, with the Consumer Product Safety Commission only stepping in when there are safety issues and serious accidents. Other than that, laws regarding ride operator training and ride inspections are left up to individual states. For example, in Washington, the state requires that theme park rides be inspected yearly, but allows for portable parks to be exempt from yearly inspections if it was inspected in another state with similar inspection guidelines. However, the waters get murkier where ride operators are concerned. The only explicit guideline about theme park operators was simply that minors under the age of 16 were prohibited from working in amusement parks. Therefore, the only thing set in stone is that the operators of theme park rides in the state are at least 16 years old. However, the picture becomes even bleaker when the wages for those operators are brought up. The mean hourly wage for a theme park worker in Washington in May 2021 was a measly $15.89 per hour. At that point, it becomes clear why accidents at theme parks happen. In addition to flawed design, it is difficult for operators who lack the training to realize that tampering with safety sensors is not a good idea. There are no requirements for training amusement park ride operators, which is disturbing, considering how much someone needs to go through in order to get their driver’s license and drive a two-ton machine around. Meanwhile, it is entirely plausible that a 16-year-old could operate a several-thousand-ton machine with barely any training at all. At the same time, paying them $2.20 over the state’s minimum wage does not encourage those operators to care about what they are doing and the ramifications of their actions. At the end of the day, while the video that made the rounds of the internet may not have been enough to make some people think twice about riding the rides at theme parks, the lax regulations and lack of training requirements may just warn people off from theme park rides.