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Michael A. Cohen

Under-regulated amusement park rides are tragedies waiting to happen

Riders go down the “Verrückt” water slide on July 9, 2014, at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City.AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

If there’s one thing that Republicans love, it is cutting regulation. Indeed, in the 14 months since Donald Trump became president, the GOP-led Congress and the Trump administration has, when not engaging in its usual routine of dysfunction and tribalistic partisanship, found plenty of time to reduce the proverbial red tape — and always to the benefit of the business community.

They’ve made it made it harder for consumers to sue banks, made it easier for people with mental illness to buy guns, and have given mining companies more leeway to pollute waterways. President Trump, who during the 2016 campaign said he wanted to cut two regulations for every new one put in place, says his administration has “eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration has ever eliminated.” While this is not true, his administration has made efforts to end major environmental regulations put in place by President Obama, repeal net neutrality rules, and open up once-protected land to oil exploration, among many other anti-regulation measures. Regulation are “stopping businesses from growing,” said Trump.

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But last week, in Kansas, we received a useful reminder about the grave dangers in viewing regulation solely through the mindset of business owners.

On Friday, the Kansas attorney general indicted the owner of Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City on murder charges for the 2016 death of 10-year old Caleb Schwab, who was decapitated on the ride’s 170-foot-tall Verrückt water slide (Verrückt means insane in German). The indictment reads like a horror show of incompetence and indifference to human life. Jeff Henry, the owner of Schlitterbahn, decided to build what became the world’s tallest water slide in a “spur-of-the-moment bid to impress producers of Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks series.” Indeed, one of his principal motivations for building the ride was to “flaunt his achievements” to other water park owners.

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Safety, however, was not much of a concern. Henry and his business partner, John Schooley , set to work on a breakneck construction pace even though neither of them had any experience in designing a death-defying waterslide.

According to the indictment, Henry and Schooley didn’t consult with a single engineer and instead used “crude trial-and-error methods.” An engineering team was finally brought on a week before the grand opening, but when they presented evidence that the slide’s rafts could go airborne (which is how Caleb Schwab was killed) the results were ignored.

Both men were well aware of the dangers of the Verrückt. Schooley admitted, “If we actually knew how to do this, and it could be done that easily, it wouldn’t be that spectacular.” In an e-mail, Henry called the ride “a seriously dangerous piece of equipment today because there are things that we don’t know about it.”

It’s small wonder that the indictment likened the waterslide to a “deadly weapon” that complied with few, if any, industry safety standards.

Once opened, the Verrückt became a horror show of injuries. In the two years that the ride was open, 13 people were injured, with concussions, lacerations, broken bones, and herniated disks. One girl was temporarily blinded after riding the Verrückt. But Schlitterbahn covered up the carnage, destroying witness statements and coaching lifeguards to draft statements that left out details about the ride’s dangers. There was no maintenance schedule for critical systems, and essential safety tools — like passenger restraints and brakes — fell into disrepair and “failed repeatedly.”

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How is it possible to have an amusement park ride built with such slipshod adherence to basic safety standards?

A big part of the reason is lack of regulation. Amusement park oversight is a hodge-podge of state laws, with no federal involvement. In 1981, Congress passed legislation creating a “roller coaster loophole” that took away the power of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to oversee parks. While half the states have a regular inspections requirement, 10 states leave it up to county governments and private inspectors, and six states don’t regulate amusement parks at all. Amazingly, in Florida, the state’s most popular parks — Disney World, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens — have been exempted by law from accident investigations.

This lack of oversight is occurring even though 1,000 injuries are reported annually at amusement parks — a number that is almost certainly too low, considering that half of all parks simply ignore the requirement to provide such information.

Kansas, not surprisingly, is one of the worst state offenders. It required annual exams by private inspections, but they didn’t have to be shared with state officials and there are no spot inspections. Indeed, Henry specifically pointed to the lack of height restrictions on water park rides in Kansas as the reason for building the Verrückt there.

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If not for the fact that employees at Schlitterbahn spoke up and gave information about the company’s shoddy safety practices to law enforcement officials Schwab’s death would have likely been viewed as an unforeseeable accident and Henry and Schooley would probably have escaped prosecution. But make no mistake: The death of Caleb Schwab is the logical result of lawmakers — in Congress, state legislatures, and the White House — prizing business bottom lines over the safety of the American people. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey for years introduced legislation in Congress calling on amusement parks to be regulated by the Consumer Safety Product Commission. Every time, it went nowhere. In the end, the interests of park owners, like Jeff Henry, trumped all other considerations.

At the end of the day, Henry and Schooley, along with the park’s former director of operations, Tyler Miles, are likely facing long jail sentences for their actions. But what about the hundreds of under-regulated amusement park rides across America that are tragedies waiting to happen? How many more people have to be injured or killed before lawmakers put safety first?


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.