Investigation uncovers unsettling gap in amusement ride safety, laws not enforced
They're for the thrills, but for hundreds of Texans, amusement park rides became a terrifying experience.
ABC 7 Investigates discovered an unsettling gap in safety when it comes to these rides.
State laws in Texas regulate amusement park rides, but we found that no one in El Paso, and possibly the state, is enforcing those laws.
It could be a deadly flaw.
"It's a huge gap in safety," said Alex Winslow, the executive director of Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group.
Friday, 16-year-old Samantha Aguilar was killed after being ejected off a Sizzler at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church carnival in El Paso.
Last week, in Amarillo, a father clutched his son, who almost fell off a roller coaster.
ABC 7 Investigates dug through state records, and found in the last five years almost 600 people across Texas reported injuries while on an amusement ride.
Injuries ranged from cuts and twisted ankles to broken bones, dislocations and two deaths, prior to Aguilar's.
From Six Flags to local church carnivals, the Texas Department of Insurance oversees the inspection of amusement rides.
Just like your car, rides get an inspection sticker, good for one year.
But ABC 7 Investigates discovered there's no one checking the stickers.
"TDI does not conduct regular reviews of those requirements to make sure these rides are in compliance," said Winslow.
TDI does not have an enforcement division for amusement rides, leading to that gap in safety. According to its website, TDI leaves the enforcement portion up to local law enforcement.
"Instead, local law enforcement is tasked with that. And in most cases, county sheriffs and local police departments don't have the manpower, the resources, to routinely inspect these facilities," said Winslow.
TDI gives local law enforcement the authority to, at any time ask owners/operators for a copy of the insurance policy, a copy of the inspection certificate and a daily self-inspection log for mobile rides.
But law enforcement officials in El Paso admit that's just not happening.
ABC 7 Amarillo reached out to both Amarillo police and the Potter County Sheriff's Office on this topic. Both tell us they are not trained to do any enforcement on amusement parks.
After two teenagers were injured on a Side Winder in 2014, KFOX14, our sister station, reached out to El Paso Police and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.
Both agencies told KFOX14 Investigates then, they don't inspect amusement ride records.
"Although, the statute gives local law enforcement the authority to inspect, there are other state and local agencies that are directly designated to oversee these types of businesses and to my knowledge the El Paso Police Department does not conduct inspections of amusement rides," said Sergeant Chris Mears, then a spokesperson with the El Paso Police Department.
"Sheriff employees are not trained to conduct inspections. We also have no records of any request by the Texas Department of Insurance to assist with any inspections of amusement rides in the unincorporated areas of El Paso County," said Chris Acosta, a spokesperson for the El Paso County Sheriff's office
That means no law enforcement agency is checking ride records when ride operators set up for church carnivals or in the parking lots of local shopping malls.
Which can be problematic as carnivals move from place to place, pulling rides apart and putting them back together again.
"These rides, they're like jigsaw puzzles. There are a lot of pieces. We need to make sure that every time they're re-assembled that they're as safe as it possibly can be," said Winslow.
There's no way to know whether enforcement of state laws could have prevented Aguilar's death.
The current safety standards for ride inspections may need to be re-examined, said Winslow.
"We need to take a good, hard look at some of these traveling carnival rides to make sure that the standard we are using for measuring safety is sufficient," said Winslow.
Winslow said it's time the Texas Legislature looked at dedicating resources to enforcing the laws when it comes to amusement park rides and making sure the safety standards are where they need to be.