Calif. Assembly approves strict amusement park rules, fines


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Amusement parks in California would be subject to government inspection and tougher fines under a measure overwhelmingly approved by the state Assembly, two years to the day after a student plunged to her death on a water slide.

California, with its many amusement parks, has one of the worst safety records in the nation. Fourteen people have died since 1973 at amusement parks here, compared with one person in Florida during the same time period.

Although the state regulates ski lifts, traveling carnivals and elevators, California is one of only four states that do not regulate permanent amusement parks. Led by Disneyland, California theme parks have spent 30 years fighting repeated attempts at state regulation.

"It's a long overdue improvement," said Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, a Democrat from Martinez and the author of the bill.

The bill, approved 58-13 Wednesday, would require that parks provide safety training for employees, increase their insurance and report major accidents. The state would, for the first time, hire trained amusement park inspectors and could fine parks up to $70,000 for negligence.

The measure was prompted by the death June 2, 1997, of Quimby Ghilotti, 18, an honor student at Napa High School. She died at WaterWorld USA in Concord when several dozen students tried to ride the Banzai Pipeline water slide at once. The ride collapsed, and Ghilotti and the others plunged 37 feet.

"I do wonder, if this bill had been in effect two years ago today, if my daughter wouldn't be in college now," said Ghilotti's mother, Victoria Nelson, who watched the Assembly vote. "It's very hard for me to understand why it hasn't always been this way."

Ghilotti's death was followed last Christmas Eve by the death of a tourist who was hit in the face by a metal cleat on the deck at Disneyland's Columbia Sailing Ship. Another Disneyland patron, 5-year-old David Fackler of La Jolla, in San Diego County, lost half of his foot after dangling it outside the park's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride.

Disneyland, the state's most popular park, has kept a low profile on Torlakson's measure. Park representatives have preferred instead to work behind the scenes with Torlakson and other powerful Democrats and have not officially opposed the measure.

The amusement parks did secure an amendment to the bill requiring that patrons comply with all warnings and instructions of the park. Torlakson said he wants the parks to install better signs and safer entrance areas.

Riders would be forbidden from attempting to disable a seat belt or overhead bar, sticking their feet out of a ride, throwing objects from a ride, or attempting to leave before a ride stops.

"What it actually does is make theme-park patrons responsible for their own behavior," said Ray Gomez, a spokesman for Disneyland in Anaheim. "If they break the rules, they are assuming the risk of breaking the rules."

Representatives of the parks say riders are responsible for most accidents, many of them alcohol-related. To appease trial lawyers and children's rights advocates, however, Torlakson did not relieve the parks from legal liability, even if someone violates the rules.

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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