WASHINGTON – A state amusement ride inspections database contains errors that could compromise ride safety, according to a Capital News Service analysis of the database.
Among the flaws in the three-year-old database, which catalogs amusement ride inspections and insurance policies held by their respective owners, were 10 companies listed as having insufficient liability insurance to operate amusement rides.
Such errors could allow a company to operate rides without adequate insurance, said Rob McGeeney, an official in the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in charge of the database. McGeeney is chief inspector of amusement ride safety in the Division of Labor and Industry, which is responsible for inspecting the state’s amusement rides.
The database, which McGeeney called a “work-in-progress,” plays a vital role in maintaining amusement rides in the state. The insurance table, which lists information about each amusement company’s insurance policy, is linked to the agency’s inspection schedule.
“We’re going to have to do something to fix these holes here,” McGeeney said Wednesday in an interview at his Baltimore office. “We need to fix these mistakes before you, a lawyer or someone else finds them.”
A subsequent review of the insurance certificates by McGeeney found that the database listed an incorrect amount of insurance for the companies and credited a church with millions of dollars more in insurance than it actually had.
The findings are troubling for the state’s amusement ride inspection officials, who are planning to computerize the inspection process and publish inspection data on the Internet.
“It should have registered that we had bad data,” McGeeney said. “It’s just human error. I really think that instead of putting six zeroes in there, they put five. People make mistakes, you know?”
When a ride is due for inspection, officials check to make sure its owner has an active insurance policy, McGeeney said. State law requires companies to submit proof of insurance with a state-approved insurer to DLLR before rides can be inspected. Policies must be renewed each year.
“If it comes up that someone doesn’t have insurance, then we don’t do the inspection and we get things straightened out,” McGeeney said.
But officials did not confirm companies had enough insurance, and the database was not programmed to alert them of possible problems with the data, he said.
Nine of the 231 amusement companies listed in the database as holding insurance last year were credited with $100,000, and another was listed as having $30,000 — which would place them below the legal threshold, which is a minimum of $200,000.
A review of the companies’ actual insurance certificates showed that nine had at least $1 million in insurance and the other had $300,000, McGeeney said.
According to state law, mechanical rides must carry at least $350,000 in liability insurance, and non-mechanical rides — those that rely solely on human power or gravity — must be insured for at least $200,000.
What frustrates state officials is that once an error is introduced into the database, inspectors have no way of knowing a problem exists.
“It’s possible that something could be inspected even if it had $100,000 of insurance instead of $1 million,” McGeeney said.
Craig Lowry, deputy commissioner of labor and industry, said the errors “absolutely” worried him, but he trusts companies to comply with the law.
“(Companies) know what the amounts are,” Lowry said. “We rely on the fact that they’re voluntarily in compliance. We would hope that people wouldn’t do things like that.”
Errors infiltrated other areas of the database as well. In seven cases, companies without insurance were listed as having rides inspected last year. When shown the data, McGeeney said either another ride was actually inspected or incomplete data was given. He said all rides examined were insured.
Fourteen companies with no address were listed as having $1 million each in insurance, which in some cases was expired. McGeeney traced those entries as well to data-entry mistakes.
Another keystroke error inflated insurance to $100 million at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Perryville — by far the largest amount in the database. The church, which runs three small rides at an annual fair, actually had $1 million in insurance, McGeeney said.
Amusement rides operating in the state last year were insured for more than $380 million, according to the data. More than 70 percent was held by Maryland amusement companies, which were joined by companies in 18 other states.
By law, all amusement rides in the state must be inspected and certified at least once a year. Carnival rides must be checked every 30 days and each time they move to a new location. Nine inspectors made a total of 4,674 inspections last year.
While officials try to iron out the database, they are negotiating with a vendor to create a Web-based system that would enable would-be riders to check inspection information before they step on a ride, Lowry said. He expects the system to start taking shape by the end of the year.
“The public should be able to look at a ride down the street and see when it was last inspected,” Lowry said.
For now, McGeeney said he needed to meet with the division’s IT specialist to set up an auditing system for the database.
“OK, we have a limit of $200,000, let’s put something in the system where if a number comes up and it’s below that, then an alert comes up to let us know something’s wrong,” McGeeney said.
Mistakes aside, McGeeney said he was pleased with how the database has reduced paperwork and streamlined the inspection process.
“It’s coming along,” he said. “But I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the point where we’ll have no data-entry errors.
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