The state is set to unveil an online tool that allows the public to check the safety of amusement park rides.
The Department of Agriculture is launching the database in response to revelations last year about gaps in oversight. Park operators inspect their own rides in most cases, with state officials mainly responsible for ensuring paperwork is in order.
Just four inspectors in the department’s Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards cover 800 ride operators. Reports last year showed flaws in how the department handles inspection records, said Michael Rader, executive director of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
The online database is meant to give the public a transparent way to access those records, Rader said. It will be available at the department’s website: agriculture.state.pa.us.
Dick Knoebel, owner of Knoebels Grove Amusement Resort in Northumberland County, said leaning on park staff to check rides makes sense because they know the equipment best.
“We don’t want black eyes,” he said.
Amusement park rides are checked daily, with formal inspections occurring once a month, according to state and industry officials.
At Knoebel’s park, 26 employees certified as inspectors monitor 60 rides. They file affidavits with the state, though nothing in those documents describe any repairs necessary to get rides to pass inspection.
But the park must keep maintenance records for seven years, Knoebel said, and turn them over to state inspectors on demand. In addition, the state conducts spot-checks, he said, and the park’s insurance company sends an ride examiner, as well.
“I believe we’re ahead of the curve,” when it comes to ride safety inspections, he said.
Knoebel described how the park just opened a bobsled-style roller coaster, seven years in the making due to “performance” challenges. Knoebel said it was his decision to keep the ride offline — not state inspectors’ — as it was fine-tuned.
A variety of safety features on the new coaster include a scale that weighs riders preparing to board, he said. People are grouped in pairs and cannot exceed 420 pounds together, he said. If a pair is too heavy, they must split up to find lighter partners.
Concerns about the state’s rider inspection program were raised last summer by the Pittsburgh-based PublicSource. The news organization checked inspections for amusement parks across the commonwealth and found numerous cases of missing records.
Its report was verified by a separate check of inspections at county fairs and carnivals, which revealed similar problems. Even when inspectors checked rides, in some cases, no paperwork was filed to document it.
The state’s online system is being tested before it’s unveiled in the next few weeks, said Samantha Krepps, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.
Knoebel noted last Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of an amusement park tragedy that prompted efforts to ensure ride safety.
On May 11, 1984, eight teenagers were killed in a fire at the Haunted Castle attraction at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J. Later that year, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed the Amusement Ride Inspection Act, setting a framework for industry oversight.
The last time a person was killed in an amusement park accident in Pennsylvania was 2001, according Agriculture Department records, when a 7-year-old died from trauma related to a roller coaster accident at a county fair.
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.