For all we know, the estimates from NEISS might underestimate the number of injuries, too. CPSC doesn’t identify the names or locations of the hospitals that report to NEISS. CPSC also wouldn’t tell us whether its estimates for waterpark injuries take into account factors such as location and proportion. Even independent safety experts whom we interviewed say it’s unclear how accurate NEISS waterpark injury estimates are. Ken Martin, who is an amusement-park safety expert, says “no good data” exist on waterpark injuries.
CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson says the agency “stands by its numbers,” and he adds that researchers around the country, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rely on NEISS data to study health issues.
What’s indisputable is that the waterpark industry doesn’t provide numbers to counter the federal data. Individual waterparks compile injury figures, but no national clearinghouse exists. In other words, the industry argues that no evidence exists that federal oversight would improve park safety, but it can’t provide any injury figures to show that waterparks are safe.
When we asked Mangone why IAAPA doesn’t track injury data, she didn’t answer the question directly. Instead, she said injuries at waterparks are “very rare” when compared with the number of customers at waterparks. That’s an interesting response from an organization that says it doesn’t have injury data.
Moreover, no way exists for consumers to find out whether some parks do a better job at protecting customers than others because of a lack of nationwide injury-reporting standards. Martin says “a lack of safety” exists at waterparks, in part, because no reliable data exist that can be used to identify and correct potential dangers.
“We need transparency to determine safety,” Martin says. “We don’t have it.”
Nancy Cowles, who is the executive director of Kids in Danger, which monitors the safety of children’s products, says the lack of federal standards for waterparks means that it’s impossible to pull together comprehensive and reliable injury data and that no system exists to efficiently share injury information among states. As a result, she says, it’s difficult to determine whether the documented injuries at waterparks are isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern of safety concerns.
“If there are no records kept, there is no way to know,” Cowles says.
Cowles says the biggest benefit of federal regulation would be mandatory collection of injury figures and the ability to more effectively share safety information among parks in all 50 states.
NO SAFETY NET. What isn’t in dispute is the lack of mandatory nationwide safety standards for waterparks. CPSC, which has regulatory authority over the safety of items such as cribs and bicycles, has no authority over waterparks. That’s just the way that the waterpark industry wants it to be. A 1981 amendment to CPSC’s Consumer Product Safety Act provides an exemption from regulation for large amusement parks, including waterparks. Congress agreed to the exemption after amusement-park lobbyists convinced lawmakers that fixed-site amusement rides aren’t consumer products in the standard sense of the word.
As a result, the nation’s largest waterparks aren’t subject to independent government inspections or public investigations of accidents—even those that involve visitor deaths. Ten of the nation’s 15 largest waterparks have no government ride-safety inspections. (See “Regulatory Slip ’n Slide,” below).
Attempts by one U.S. lawmaker to overturn the federal exemptions for the largest waterparks have gained no traction. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill in every Congress since 1999 that would restore federal oversight of fixed-site attractions, such as waterparks, to CPSC, but the legislation made no significant progress. In the most recent action, Markey referred the bill to a House subcommittee in September 2011. The bill since has expired, so it must be reintroduced.
Markey publicly described state oversight as ranging from “good to none” and said it’s an “outrage” that federal inspectors don’t have access to accident sites at waterparks and can’t order safety improvements. In addition to restoring CPSC oversight, his bill would authorize the agency to investigate waterpark accidents and make injury reporting by parks mandatory.
We wanted to know whether Markey planned to reintroduce his federal oversight bill in 2013 and how he would fund expanded CPSC investigations if his bill ever would pass. However, Markey spokesperson Giselle Barry failed to respond to any of the 12 phone messages and five emails that Consumers Digest submitted to Markey’s office during our reporting. That’s disappointing, because if the top proponent of creating federal standards for waterpark safety doesn’t even want to talk about it with Consumers Digest, what motivation do other lawmakers have to support the cause?