Pennsylvania amusement ride website leaves readers hanging
An effort by the state Department of Agriculture to increase the transparency of its amusement ride inspection program gives the public little information about the rides that twirl and thrill them.
A website the department began in the spring shows when a ride was last inspected but offers no details about the ride's inspection or history.
“That's not enough, especially when it's a life-or-death situation,” said Elisa Odabashian, director of state programs for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “It sounds like a website that is just meant to placate people and not meant to let you know when a company neglects its safety responsibilities.”
Odabashian said the website should show when rides failed inspections or were cited by the state for maintenance issues.
State inspectors file reports when they find safety issues with a ride, but those reports are not available through the website.
“Every amusement ride or attraction has a day-to-day checklist, but every checklist is different, and that is something by law that we don't require that they submit to us,” said Walt Remmert, director of the state's Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards, which oversees amusement ride inspections for the Department of Agriculture.
“All we can offer the public is that we know they are abiding by it,” he said.
For example, if the Citizens Fire Company in Emmaus, Lehigh County, logs onto www.ridesafe.pa.gov before organizing its next annual carnival, it won't see that a state inspector found safety problems with five rides A.E.B. Amusements operated before the department's carnival opened last year.
“I would like to know that,” said Patti Diehl, a board member who organized the carnival. “Because my No. 1 priority is the safety of anyone who rides these rides.”
Easton-based A.E.B. Amusement corrected the safety issues before the carnival in May, said manager Aaron Brotzman. The company is up to date on its required state inspections.
“There's no cover-up here. We have a fairly good relationship with the department, and if something comes into view, we stop operation,” Brotzman said. “If there is something that needs attention, we'll close the rides ourselves.”
The bureau oversees about 9,300 rides at the state's 117 amusement parks and traveling carnivals. In 2012, 11 million people visited amusement parks and took 55 million rides, Michael Pechart, executive deputy secretary at the Agriculture Department, said during a hearing last year. Pechart said that for every 1 million rides, there were five injuries.
Rides at amusement parks must be inspected every month. Rides in traveling carnivals must be inspected each time they are set up, Remmert said.
The state employs four inspectors to perform drop-in checks but relies on about 2,100 state-licensed private inspectors to examine rides and submit reports. Those inspectors often work for the amusement park or carnival. If a ride doesn't pass its inspection, or if it hasn't had a recent inspection, it can't legally operate, Remmert said.
The Agriculture Department came under fire last year over criticism that more than half of the state's amusement parks had not submitted the required monthly inspection reports. To address the problem, the state put its inspection report database online for the public to search. It shows when an inspection report was last submitted but little else.
Kennywood in West Mifflin is up to date on inspections for 44 of its 45 rides. The Enterprise, a spinning wheel that takes riders upside-down, was last inspected at the end of May, according to the website. It has been closed since then for maintenance and repairs, park spokesman Jeff Filicko said. Kennywood has 18 state-certified inspectors who check rides daily and submit the monthly reports to the state's Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards.
Remmert said the website, which drew nearly 28,000 page views by the end of August, is in its early stages. Information will be updated and added, he said without providing specifics on what will be added.
State Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, praised the Department of Agriculture for the progress it made since he organized a hearing about the ride inspection program in October. He said the website gives the public access to information to see if a ride is safe or not. He did not think that information such as a ride's history or a checklist of what is inspected needs to be included.
“I think the public has a right to know whether a ride has been inspected and deemed safe or not,” Maher said.
Chris Polakovsky, co-owner of Mt. Pleasant-based C&L Shows, a traveling carnival, called the state's website a good step but said that posting checklists and state safety reports might confuse the public. Rides are full of parts with unfamiliar names, he said. A bounce house checklist may have four or five items; a Ferris wheel, dozens.
“Do you even know what cribbing is?” Polakovsky asked. “The public needs to be informed, but some of this stuff, do they even know what it is?”
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.