By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – Every screw, tie-line and tea cup on every amusement ride erected in Maryland must pass Craig Lowry’s band of inspectors before the kids can climb aboard.
Their thoroughness — inspections can take anywhere 30 minutes to two days — has paid off, if accident records are any indication.
In the last two years, Maryland registered only 11 accidents on the 6,476 amusement rides that were inspected, according to a Capital News Service analysis of inspections from 1999 and 2000 compiled by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
And Lowry, the program manager for safety inspection, faulted the rider rather than the ride for the majority of those accidents.
But some in the industry worry that the state, despite its safety record and what they describe as a model safety inspection program, is losing interest in funding the training and staffing necessary to maintain that record.
Thomas Gaylin, the fourth-generation owner of Maryland’s largest carnival, Rosedale Amusements, said that budget constraints and shifting priorities call into question whether the state is going to fund additional inspectors and continued training for the future. Gaylin said the system has worked in the past because there has been a concerted effort by the state to invest in the inspection program.
Dan Dudley, the founding supervisor of Maryland’s amusement ride inspection program and now a national ride safety consultant, shares Gaylin’s concerns.
“If you don’t finance it, you don’t have a program,” Dudley said. He added that the tightening of the purse strings compromises the integrity of the inspections and thus safety.
But state officials dispute claims that the inspection program is being slighted. Spokeswoman Karen Napolitano said that the department has not stepped back funding on the amusement ride inspection program, and that it strives to maintain the program as a model system.
Officials could not break out specific spending on amusement ride inspections. But they noted that the division that handles those inspections — along with checks on elevators, escalators and other devices — saw its budget grow from $2.7 million this year to $2.9 million in fiscal 2002.
When Dudley helped found the state’s inspection program in 1976, Maryland was the seventh state to implement an amusement ride inspection program. He said he left behind an elite program marked by independent, well-trained inspectors.
While Maryland uses state employees to inspect carnival and amusement park rides, neighboring states rely upon owners to hire third-party inspectors or to certify employees as inspectors.
Gaylin, who does a sliver of his business in Pennsylvania and Virginia, said Maryland’s independence is the hallmark of its success. Maryland’s inspections are “done by inspectors who have nothing to do with the industry,” Gaylin said, and are not burdened by the conflict of interest that arises when critiquing the boss.
Having confidence in the inspection system is very important for consumers because it gives them “a comfort zone to attend carnivals in the state of Maryland,” said Gaylin.
“It protects them from an industry that has over the years earned a stigma of not caring about them very much,” he said.
Maryland inspectors pored over 2,626 amusement rides in the state last year, according to the department’s data. The average kiddie carousel will take about 30 minutes to inspect while a monster roller coaster, like the Mind Eraser at Six Flags America in Largo, might take up to two days, said Lowry.
“When dealing with safety issues, it’s not just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” Lowry said. “It is something that affects the lives of individuals.”
But Dudley said it takes more these days than sheer dedication. The most important ingredient for safety now is frequent training for inspectors, he said, because the newest rides are “higher, faster with more G-forces.”
With his daily viewing of the nuts and bolts of amusement rides, Dudley knows the industry cares. He is confident enough in the rides’ safety that he doesn’t hesitate to his load his 13 grandchildren on any ride. But he does worry that if safety inspections do not remain a funding priority, the industry may not be as conscientious.
“We’re playing with people’s lives out here,” said Dudley. “Whatever it takes to make that program work is what it needs.”