Thirteen years have passed since an accident caused serious injury on a State Fair of Texas amusement park ride, according to public records at the Texas Department of Insurance. And no one has died from a ride accident since 1983.
Rusty Fitzgerald, the fair's director of operations, wants to keep it that way.
"I don't want to be national news," Fitzgerald said.
The 2009 edition of the State Fair opens Friday. This year, the midway features 70 rides, from tame toddler rides to the wild ones that anybody with a heart, back or neck condition would be foolish to climb on.
Public records in state and federal government files shed some light on ride safety. But the industry is mostly free from government regulation.
Robert Niles, editor of themeparkinsider.com, a consumer guide to amusement parks, likens the rides to passenger airplanes. Most planes take off and land safely. Most amusement park rides end without incident. But fatalities from plane crashes and thrill rides both get a lot of attention.
"The most dangerous thing is not straight-ahead speed but getting your head or body whipped around by centrifugal force," Niles said.
Regulatory agencies in some states conduct ride inspections, but Texas allows operators to self-inspect. Operators must provide proof to the Texas Department of Insurance that they have inspected a ride at least once a year.
The public does not get access to those inspection records because private companies are not subject to the same open-record laws that government agencies must follow.
State law also requires ride owners to carry liability-insurance policies that provide minimum coverage of $1 million per incident, according to Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Insurance Department in Austin.
"The Texas system [of regulation], as directed by the Legislature, is one that many states use and that has served us well over the years," Hagins said.
The State Fair of Texas does not own its midway rides. Twenty-eight companies own the rides and haul them to Fair Park on tractor-trailer rigs a few days before the festivities begin.
State law requires these companies to file accident reports with the state Insurance Department if a rider sustains an injury requiring more than routine first aid.
The accident reports are public records. But the Insurance Department's accident-reporting form does not require the companies to report precisely where the incident occurred.
So, if a mom in Sherman is thinking about taking the kids to the State Fair and wants to know how many ride-related accidents have occurred there, she won't find out from the state Insurance Department because the reports are kept by the owner or operator, not by the fair, carnival or event.
And how many moms would know the company names of ride owners?
Hagins said his department wants to work with the public and would help anyone sort through the accident forms to determine how many accidents occurred during an event such as the State Fair.
"Putting myself in the position of the consumer, it's a good point," Hagins said. "We should look into creating a searchable database that people could use to determine where the accidents happened."
The Dallas Morning News asked the Insurance Department for all accident reports filed by ride companies hired by the State Fair. The last accident reported at the fair happened on Sept. 29, 1996, when a 7-year-old boy fell on a concrete platform next to the Texas Star and cut open his chin.
Normal ride action, not equipment malfunction or operator error, causes most injuries on amusement park rides, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Heads, necks and backs get twisted. But those injuries usually are not serious and don't get treated at the scene. Because they are not associated with accidents, they usually don't get reported to the Texas Department of Insurance.
One national report estimates that 2,800 to 4,300 emergency-room-treated injuries were associated with mobile amusement rides - those that travel from town to town - each year between 1997 and 2003.
The amusement park industry still suffers from the residue of its past reputation - scruffy, drunken carnies crisscrossing the country. What few people see is the industry's concern with performance standards and operation of the ride equipment.
Fitzgerald, who used to be director of operations for Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, has worked at the State Fair since 2001. He is a member of the American Society for Testing of Materials Committee F24, which sets standards for the manufacture, performance, testing and operation of amusement park rides.
"We don't want anything to escape our notice," he said.
State law may require one inspection per ride each year, but Fitzgerald said the rides he brings to the State Fair will be inspected several times a year.
He hires five independent ride inspectors to look at the rides during each fair. And he sends them to inspect rides when they appear at other events throughout the nation.
Extreme, a wild "G-Force" ride, was inspected this year in Minnesota and California and will be inspected in Dallas.
"The inspection equipment can spot a crack in a piece of metal that is not visible to the human eye," he said.
Fitzgerald requires every ride operator to be drug-tested before the fair. And each one is required to attend weekly ride-safety seminars. Often, they will focus on issues that have arisen from video surveillance of rides and their operators on the midway.
Fitzgerald takes a holistic approach to ride safety. Satisfied employees who feel valued will take better care of customers and will be more safety conscious, he said.
The State Fair of Texas provides those operators with an air-conditioned dining hall with good food. They park their recreational vehicles - their homes away from home - on a paved lot. The fair operates a convenience store on the lot that sells products at cost.
Niles, the editor of themeparkinsider.com, said Fitzgerald's approach is "right on the mark."
"Drug testing is something that is tangible and pervasive in the industry now," Niles said. "But the important safety-related question is how experienced is the employee? How long have you gotten them to stick around and learn what they need to know?"
Niles said he believes the amusement park industry has become more attuned to safety during the last decade. He attributes the increased sensitivity to two things: the Internet and insurance.
"The Internet assures that any incident gets reported all over the world," he said. "And these guys are required to buy insurance."
Fitzgerald said he and his staff are working around the clock as the State Fair's opening approaches. Crews are setting up the rides and getting ready to whirl and spin their customers into a giddy state of excitement.
"I'm constantly asking myself, 'What do I need to check? What did I miss?' " he said.
Some things to consider before climbing on the midway rides at the State Fair of Texas:
?Most injuries are not caused by operator error or equipment malfunction, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most often the culprit is a person's own body. "G-force" rides such as roller coasters and spinning rides can be bad for heads, necks and backs.
?Those who probably should avoid high-impact rides: pregnant women, people with heart problems, high blood pressure or a history of strokes, and anyone who has broken a bone in the past 12 months.
?Parents can get on some kiddie rides with their children. Ask the ride operator for guidance.
?Secure loose items. Stay off your cellphone, which could fly out of your hand and injure someone.
?Watch your step getting on and off rides. Many injuries occur when riders slip, trip or fall on adjacent stairs or platforms.
?When riding a "floorless" coaster, relax your legs and let them dangle underneath you. Don't kick them out to the side or front.
?Some spinning rides and roller coasters can whip your head around, causing headaches or more serious injuries. Keep your balance in the seat. Relax but don't go limp. Keep your head upright and centered, eyes forward.
?All State Fair ride operators should be wearing a photo ID badge. This signifies that they are qualified and have successfully undergone drug testing.
?Wear closed-toe shoes with soles that provide good traction.
?Avoid dangling jewelry, loose drawstrings or anything that could get tangled in machinery.
?Pay attention to signs about minimum height required to get on a ride. Built-in restraints on a ride might not hold in place people who are too small.
?Obey signs prohibiting entry to "Restricted Areas."
?Don't bully or force children into riding a ride that scares them. A crying child might try to disembark before the ride stops.
?If a ride stops because of malfunction, don't try to stand up. Get free of restraints and disembark. Be patient until you get instructions from the operator.
?Look the ride over. If cosmetic things - burned-out light bulbs or frayed seat upholstery - appear to be in bad shape, chances are the ride's mechanical parts haven't been maintained. Don't get on it.
SOURCES: Rusty Fitzgerald of the State Fair of Texas; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; themeparkinsider.com; Saferparks.org