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Expert says Florida’s amusement rides need improvement

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Several ride safety experts say that while Florida is among the best states in the US when it comes to its ride safety laws, there is still work to be done.

The state could do more to protect drivers, according to Brian Avery, an operations consultant who has worked in the events, tourism and attractions industries for nearly 30 years.

what you need to know

  • Florida officials on Tuesday announced the completion of an investigation into the death of 14-year-old Tire Sampson
  • The teenager died in March when he slipped out of his seat and fell off the Orlando FreeFall Tower Drop Ride
  • Safety expert Brian Avery says changes in Florida law could make a similar incident much more difficult in the future

“We should be the gold star of ride safety here in the state of Florida,” Avery said.

But although international safety standards for rides are cited in Florida laws, Avery says in some places, the state’s legal language itself is broad enough to allow for loopholes that circumvent those standards.

Avery is a member of ASTM F-24, the committee that develops these international safety standards. Although ASTM-F24 standards require that weight limit signs always be posted near a ride, Florida legal language does not.

That discrepancy, Avery says, came into play when 14-year-old Tire Sampson fell to his death in March after slipping out of his seat on the Orlando FreeFall.

“There was a loophole, if you will, where it wasn’t recommended by a ride’s manufacturer — not even required, just recommended — that certain markings for types of drivers be put on the signage that the state didn’t have to be, and the state wouldn’t enforce them,” Avery said. “So the public wasn’t aware of this (weight) requirement and those running it weren’t reinforced on it because they didn’t see it on a daily basis.”

According to the FreeFall’s service manual, it had a weight limit of 286 pounds. According to official figures, Sampson weighed 383 pounds when he died.

According to video footage provided to Spectrum News, it appears that even the ride’s owners appeared unaware of the drop tower ride’s weight limit as well.

“No, there is no weight limit,” Ritchie Armstrong, CEO of The Slingshot Group, said at a press conference earlier this year before the ride opened for the first time. “There is no minimum age, no minimum weight and no maximum weight. If you fit securely in the seat and the belt is secure…none of these operating systems will work unless the seats are latched. So if you can safely fit in the seat, drive.”

More robust signage requirements are included in the package of proposed legislative changes first tabled by state leaders in July and drafted on Thursday, when Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced the culmination of the department’s investigation into the FreeFall ride and Sampson’s death.

“Our changes would require the publication of all customer requirements, warnings and/or exclusions in the driver’s manual,” Fried said Thursday.

Here’s what state leaders say they plan to include in the proposed “Tire-Sampson Act”:

  1. Enhanced signage requirements for user qualifications
  2. Further safety system reviews during the permitting process before engineers sign FDACS annual affidavits
  3. A more comprehensive definition of what trip changes must be legally reported to the state
  4. Department authority to set minimum standards for training and requirements for training documentation
  5. Departmental authority and increased reporting requirements for maintenance documentation and all changes to safety systems and restraint systems
  6. The authority has the power to order the commissioning and certification of amusement rides as part of the licensing requirements
  7. Added requirement for ride operators to provide government with all manufacturer data for settings related to passenger restraint systems and safety systems
  8. New “safety monitor” positions within the FDACS who would be solely responsible for inspecting all types of rides – including unannounced visits – to ensure all training and operational requirements are met

Driving manuals were never provided to the driving attendants who worked on the freefall ride the night Sampson died, according to the state’s extensive investigative report released Thursday. This is another major problem with Florida’s current law, according to Avery.

“Unfortunately, I feel that the state of Florida’s general education and requirements are very lacking,” Avery said. “That doesn’t go far enough. And we don’t have any guidelines for how long the training should last, and we don’t require the introduction of specific documents.”

“If you don’t have a driver’s manual, how do you train your people? How to check the devices correctly? Do you stick to the specs of the device or the vehicle?” he added.

According to Avery, even when driver attendants and operators are properly trained, there is currently insufficient oversight or enforcement to ensure employees are actually following these instructions consistently.

“Did (the staff) learn it? did they keep it Are you okay with that?” Avery said. “And if they’re not, how do we correct that behavior and make sure they’re following the rules and that the circumstances of the guests… don’t manifest themselves in injury or death?”

That gap in training requirements is another issue that the proposed “Tire-Sampson Act” would address, according to State Senator Geraldine Thompson, who has promised to introduce the law expeditiously.

“As the millions of people who visit Florida come to this state, we want them to know that there is oversight, that there is accountability, that there are inspections, that there are educational requirements,” Thompson said on am Tuesday.

Fried said the proposed law would give the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services the power to set a “minimum standard” for training, as well as for documenting the precise delivery of that training.

Officials said the owners of the FreeFall ride were unable to provide such documentation during the state investigation.

Check out: US states with comprehensive driver enforcement and those without

(Information from ridesdatabase.org)

When asked Tuesday what experts were consulted in developing the proposed law, Fried said the state, in partnership with Thompson’s office, has been working with FDACS employees involved in driver inspections and safety manual protocols.

For their part, Avery and other driving safety experts interviewed by Spectrum News said they would like to see more universal adoption of the safety standards developed by ASTM-F24.

“I hope that one day these standards may eventually be adopted at the federal level or just be accepted by the entire industry,” Avery said. “They create the standards to mitigate and eliminate these known and foreseeable hazards so that we can provide safer experiences for the public.”

Avery said it shouldn’t fall on consumers like Sampson to know whether or not a device is safe for them to drive.

“We cannot blame our customer base for the deficiencies in their knowledge because they are not experts,” he said. “The ride industry is. The amusement park operators are So we have to make sure we let them know… if we can’t get them to read a sign – that we’re even enforcing those requirements on that sign or those materials.

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