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Florida leaders reveal framework for proposed ride safety law

todayJuly 20, 2022 1

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried on Wednesday revealed the working framework for a new amusement ride safety law, which was drafted in collaboration with two state lawmakers.

What You Need To Know

  • On Wednesday, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried released a draft of new legislation concerning amusement park safety

  •  The proposed legislation comes after 14-year-old Tyre Sampson died after falling from the drop tower ride at ICON Park in March

  • If passed, the law would address seven areas of ride safety, including signage, operator training requirements and accident reporting procedures

The proposed legislation would majorly ramp up the state’s authority to regulate amusement rides at smaller parks — including the 430-foot drop tower ride at ICON Park, which was involved in the death of Tyre Sampson, who fell from the ride March. Following the 14-year-old’s tragic death, Fried’s office opened an investigation, which remains ongoing. 

The proposed law, which is still in draft form, addresses seven different layers of ride safety, from signage and operator training requirements, to accident reporting procedures. It also calls for a new amusement ride monitoring program, which would include impromptu visits from ride inspectors hired by the state.

If the proposal were to become law, it would grant the state’s Department of Agriculture authority to establish minimum training standards for ride operators. That’s a critical component, according to one of the attorneys representing Sampson’s mother, Nekia Dodd.

“When these things are built, they’re built in ways that are supposed to protect people’s safety,” said Todd Michaels of The Haggard Law Firm. “And when you’ve got operators who decide to modify those safety features — to allow people who shouldn’t be riding on the ride, ride on the ride — it is a disaster waiting to happen.”

In April, an engineering firm’s report determined a ride operator manually adjusted a safety sensor so the drop tower ride would run, even though Sampson’s seat harness didn’t fit him properly. That, the report said, is why Sampson ultimately slipped out of his seat during the ride.

Ensuring ride operators are properly trained — and re-trained — is a major focus for the state leaders behind the proposed bill, according to Democratic State Sen. Randolph Bracy (District 11) and Democratic State Rep. Geraldine Thompson (District 44).

Both lawmakers joined Fried Wednesday at a virtual press conference to discuss the proposal.

“What we’re proposing is to have a curriculum for training that needs to be included — how lengthy would the training be, and something beyond just receiving a form that would say that there has been training,” Thompson said.

Leaders also want to ensure ride operators receive training more than just once, Bracy said. 

“We want this to be an ongoing process, where people are continually refreshed on what their training should be,” he said. 

Michaels said Dodd and her legal team support the proposed bill, and believe it’ll help keep other riders safe. 

But the bill wouldn’t apply to all amusement rides. State statute only grants the agriculture department the authority to regulate rides at parks with fewer than 1,000 employees and no full-time inspectors on staff.

That means larger parks like Disney World and Universal Studios are technically exempt from state oversight — and this proposed legislation wouldn’t change that.

“The exemption for our large theme parks is a totally separate issue, and removing that exemption would have to be done by the legislature,” Fried said during Wednesday’s press conference.

In his nearly 30 years of working as a certified ride safety inspector, Ken Martin said he has found the amusement ride industry’s biggest problem to be the absence of any national system for checks and balances.

As an industry insider, he said he’s aware of fatal incidents on amusement rides that were never publicly reported — including some at larger parks.

“What we’re hearing about here today is only the tip of the iceberg,” Martin said. “There are things, because of lax reporting requirements, that you never hear about, that occur daily in these amusement parks.”

Martin said he’d like to see any new legislation include tangible repercussions for park operators who don’t follow protocol.

“There has to be some type of consequence in the law,” he said.

For his part, Michaels thinks all amusement parks should be subject to the same scrutiny, regardless of how large or small they are.

“It’s simple: The ride’s not dangerous because it’s at ICON Park or because it’s at Disney,” Michaels said. “The ride’s dangerous because you’re putting people on there to seek thrills.”

“When you are putting people’s lives in people’s hands like that, these rides must be operated safely,” he continued. “I don’t care if you’re Disney, Universal or ICON or anyone else. They’re minimal steps, they save lives, (they) should apply to anybody.”

As for the tragedy at ICON Park, Michaels said he hopes people remember Sampson for who he was, not just how he died.

“I think that whenever there’s a tragedy, people always think of the person as the tragedy,” he said. “Tyre was in every way a three-dimensional kid, and was by all accounts such a wonderful kid.”

Michaels shared with Spectrum News a written statement from Dodd, which expressed her gratitude for the proposed bill — and her continued hopes for the Orlando Freefall to close permanently.

You can read her full statement below:

I appreciate the proposed amusement park ride safety legislation, named after my son Tyre Sampson, that was presented today by Commissioner Fried, Senator Bracy and Representative Thompson.

I pray that state leaders in Florida pass this proposed law so no other family has to ever suffer as I am.  I feel the pain each and every day over the loss of my beloved son Big Tick, Tyre Sampson. It has been 4 months since he was taken from me and 4 months of incredible agony.

I also want to reiterate that I believe the ride should be taken down. It’s a monument to this preventable tragedy. The ride’s mere existence is an insult to the memory of my son and makes each day since he was killed even more impossible for those of us who loved Tyre every day of his life.

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