Who Is to Blame in the Kansas Waterpark Death?

It’s fair to guess that the American public has a slightly skewed impression of theme park-related deaths. Many folks likely imagine they’re more common than they really are — and that’s in part because they’re so scarce.

Statistics are difficult to come by, but deaths from roller coasters occur at an approximate rate of 0.27 per year. Regrettably, 2004 is the most recent year for which this data is available.

Accidents attributable to amusement park rides, however, are considerably more common than deaths. In 2011, 1,204 people were reportedly injured at theme parks, though this data, too, is suspect.

When theme park-related deaths do occur, however, they tend to capture the attention of the nation — as it recently did with 10-year-old Caleb Thomas Schwab, the son of Kansas state Representative Scott Schwab. Caleb lost his life recently while riding Verruckt, the world’s tallest water slide, at a park called Schlitterbahn, in Kansas City. The word “Verruckt” means “insane” in the German language.

The details of the story are tragic and grisly. Suffice it to say, those who knew Caleb were both disturbed and shaken by his passing.

American citizens take their lives into their hands each day in the form of long commutes to work and even the decision to operate microwave ovens — but we never really see it coming when an instrument of delight leads to something like this. Understandably, everybody involved is looking for a tidy place to lay the blame.

So whose fault was this tragedy?

Was It the Park’s?

In the aftermath of the incident, other park visitors came forward to express their concern over the safety of Verruckt. Sara Craig, another park-goer and a mother herself, claims that her shoulder restraint came off while she was on the ride. She chose not to report the experience to ride attendants at the time. “I didn’t think much of it,” she said.

But lots of people are thinking about it now. The nation has turned its eyes to Schlitterbahn, which now looks like it has some difficult questions to answer. To begin with, it’s unclear whether Caleb met the ride’s minimum height requirements — a serious oversight from the park’s employees who were overseeing safety on the ride.

Truly damning, however, is the six safety violations awarded to the park in 2013 on the grounds of “tragically expos[ing] its workers to unnecessary risks.”

In fact, since 2011, Schlitterbahn has had to report more than 60 ride-related injuries across three of its parks. Not an encouraging track record.

Was It the Government’s?

The state of Kansas requires amusement parks to submit to annual inspections of all their park rides. Notably, parks are allowed to make use of private inspectors, rather than state inspectors, which makes that strike one against the government: The honor system is not an indulgence worth granting when lives are at stake.

Grant them they did, however. The current laws are the direct result of lobbying done by Schlitterbahn itself in 2008, when inspection requirements were first being discussed in the state. The law produced by this “compromise” was referred to by a Florida lawmaker as “absurd.”

Other states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota and Utah require no oversight whatsoever when it comes to amusement parks. Clearly, the nation is a patchwork of contradictory laws, all of which adds up to a general lack of protection for park-goers. What laws do exist on the books appear to give the parks far too much leeway and rely too broadly on self-audits and self-reporting when incidents do occur.

Was It the Technology’s?

Roller Coaster and Theme Parks

Image: PublicDomainPictures.net

Nevertheless, it should be noted that safety equipment on rides such as these is being improved all the time. For example: Disney spends an incredible amount of money on investing in safer park technologies and, as a result, reports far fewer incidents than American parks in general.

Even the process of inspecting the rides is more capable than ever, even featuring radiography, ultrasound and other advanced technologies.

In fact, there seems to basically be no aspect of modern physics that doesn’t get factored in when it comes to building a safer theme park. Even compressed air is used to great effect in a number of world-class roller coasters, to help cars brake more effectively and smoothly. Developing pneumatic technology is just one tool that some of the world’s biggest theme parks are implementing to ensure that rider safety is their top priority.

And that leads us all the way back to the sticky topic of user error.

Attention to the Details

Let’s go back to Sara Craig’s example from earlier: the slipped-off restraint that she didn’t make public until after the news came out about Caleb’s death.

How does such a thing happen? She didn’t say it broke — she said it slipped off. That’s not the sort of thing that an ultrasound is going to catch — it clearly falls within the purview of the ride attendants, who — and this is familiar to you if you’ve ever been to an amusement park — go around tugging on each guest’s harness before a roller coaster gets moving.

The latest update to Caleb’s story is that he didn’t weigh enough to exceed the combined rider weight limit — which absolves the park of one kind of carelessness, but not the other kinds.

We might never know precisely what unfortunate cocktail of variables resulted in this tragedy, and given that, it’s not fair to jump to conclusions.

But let’s be clear about what’s not fair: a theme park throwing its weight around in a state’s general assembly to reduce or eliminate the oversight that should rightly be placed on them. Remember, Schlitterbahn lobbied hard to have Kansas’ inspection law defeated in 2008, and then went on to receive numerous safety citations in the following years for not protecting their guests and workers accurately.

Although it was a perfect storm of carelessness and a state government that bowed to financial pressures and compromised on safety regulations, even when lives hung in the balance, it’s clear that, going forward, a lesson needs to be made of Schlitterbahn. When your history of negligence eventually culminates in the decapitation death of a 10-year-old, crucifixion in the court of public opinion is the very least of what you deserve.

Holly WhitmanAuthor: Holly Whitman is a writer and political journalist, blogging at Only Slightly Biased on everything from human rights to the presidential election. You can also find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.