Waterparks: Is Public Safety Going Down the Tubes? (cont.)

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Furthermore, a 2007 investigation by The Washington Post says the waterpark industry spent a lot of money to oppose Markey’s efforts to create federal guidelines for waterpark safety. For instance, IAAPA spent $430,000 in 2001 alone in lobbying efforts to block Markey’s proposal.

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It isn’t surprising that consumer advocates support Markey’s bill. What’s surprising is that a former member of IAAPA’s board of directors also supports Markey’s bill. Jim Prager, who is a former attorney for Six Flags, was involved in the industry’s successful push for the exemption of fixed-site parks from federal oversight in 1981. However, in a 2007 letter of support of Markey’s legislation, Prager said he and the industry were “wrong 25 years ago” and that “the industry should be regulated."

Prager’s letter also says licensed safety engineers who are hired by waterparks’ insurance companies to inspect waterparks and to ensure public safety are an example of a system of self-regulation that’s “created to serve not the public, but the industry.” His letter says the current system provides “an illusory aura of safety.” We weren’t able to reach Prager for comment.

We also found evidence that tougher injury-reporting standards, including an increase in the use of government safety inspectors, can reduce injuries. Injuries at waterparks and other fixed-site amusement parks in New Jersey fell sharply after the state adopted rigorous regulations that include annual inspections by state inspectors and mandatory reporting of all customer injuries. The number of nonserious injuries at fixed-site parks, including waterparks, in New Jersey fell to 122 in 2011 from 282 in 1997, while the number of serious injuries fell to 6 from 24 during the same period, according to New Jersey’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which has authority over amusement parks. It’s worth noting that New Jersey achieved a sharp reduction in ride and waterslide injuries even as its overall amusement-park industry expanded. The number of amusement parks and waterparks in New Jersey nearly doubled to 184 in 2011 from 102 in 1997.

Martin says New Jersey’s experience provides evidence that federal regulation of waterparks would be beneficial to consumers.

“Whether an attraction is wet or dry or fixed or mobile, a parent wants to know if rides are a hazard,” Martin says, “and you need outside audits and injury reporting to give consumers the information they need to make that decision.”

STATE OF CONCERN. New Jersey’s approach to regulating waterparks is clearly an exception. State authority over waterparks varies to the extreme. Twenty-four states perform their own inspections of waterparks and investigate waterpark accidents, while 11 states give insurance companies the authority to inspect waterparks for safety compliance, according to a nationwide analysis of standards by Saferparks.org, which tracked such standards through 2009. (See “How States Monitor Waterparks”.) No other analysis of state standards for waterparks exists, and we found no evidence that standards in any state have changed significantly since Saferparks.org’s last analysis.

Ten states have partial oversight of some aspect of waterpark operations, such as waterslide inspections, while five states have no specific safety regulations for waterparks or other fixed-site amusement parks, including no regulations that cover accident investigations, according to Saferparks.org. States that have no waterpark or fixed-site ride-safety laws at press time are Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada and Utah.

The resulting patchwork of state oversight leaves the nation’s biggest waterparks with the least outside regulation and the most leeway to decide when a waterslide is dangerous and whether an accident merits an investigation. In New Jersey, even minor cuts and scrapes must be reported to state officials within 24 hours of an incident. In Florida, waterparks that have at least 1,000 workers and that employ full-time safety inspectors are required to submit reports of injuries only once every 3 months, and the waterparks are left to decide how vigorously to investigate injuries and fatalities. All other waterparks in Florida are required to report injuries to the state within 4 hours. In Florida, inspectors can’t set foot in a big park without getting the park’s approval, even if a fatal accident occurred.

We called the three largest waterparks in Florida to ask them why the size of their parks should exempt them from outside inspections and investigations. A spokesperson for Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World and Blizzard Beach at Disney World refused to answer our questions. A spokesperson for Aquatica at SeaWorld didn’t respond to our request.

World Waterpark Association (WWA) President Rick Root rejects the notion that waterparks aren’t regulated adequately. He says all parks are subject to local or state rules when it comes to matters such as water quality and lifeguarding requirements.

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