The death of an 11-year-old Pleasantville girl who fell from a Ferris wheel in Wildwood June 3 has led her parents to call for seatbelts to be added to the ride, but manufacturers of the giant wheels have heard and resisted those calls before, saying the restraints do no good.
Since Abiah Jones fell from the Giant Wheel in Wildwood, the state's Department of Community Affairs has recommended raising the minimum height requirement for the ride to 54 inches and banning single riders. The Morey Organization, owner of the Giant Wheel, met and even exceeded those requirements when it scheduled to reopen the Giant Wheel ride Saturday.
In a statement issued Friday, Morey's Piers said, "As an additional measure of safety, Morey's Piers will also increase its prior minimum height requirement to ride without an adult from the now state-required 54 inches to a new minimum height of 60 inches."
But seatbelts? Few industry experts have publicly supported them. And ride manufacturers have steadfastly resisted them.
"The type of Ferris wheel that is on operation at the (Mariner's Landing) pier is one of the most popular if not the most popular in the world and has a respected safety record," said Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides and chairman of ASTM Committee F24, which oversees international amusement ride design standards.
ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), is a recognized leader in the development of international voluntary consensus standards.
Seay said Ferris wheels "are typically one of the mildest rides in a park or carnival and impose no G forces on the rider like thrill rides. The experience is really akin to sitting on a balcony at a hotel resort. Nice views in a non-thrill environment."
Seay said that the open gondolas have both locking doors and sidewalls or rails that, combined with rider minimum age requirements and safety warnings, "provide a safe environment for the rider."
"Just as it may be an overreach to put a restraining device on an open balcony it seems the same to me in a non-dynamic environment like a wheel gondola. The ASTM ride safety regulations which are developed by experts from both the regulatory and operational sides of the business have very detailed restraint requirements for dynamic rides, but conclude that it is appropriate to not have restraining devices in a non-dynamic environment like a Ferris wheel," Seay said.
While he understands the need for parents to want to install restraints, David Collins, an engineer and amusement ride consultant based in Newbury, Calif., also said the measure wouldn't provide the safety parents are seeking.
"Seat restraints on a Ferris wheel car don't do anything," he said.
Collins said riders will simply unbuckle them or find a way out. "I have seen young people with shoulder restraints tuck their feet under their butts and stand up. It's what I call the wiggle factor," Collins said.
Around the world, Ferris wheels make the most of their views. Singapore, for example, is home to the Singapore Flyer, an observation wheel consisting of 28 enclosed compartments that stands some 42-stories tall offering spectacular views of the city.
Myrtle Beach, S.C., recently opened the 200-foot-tall Sky Wheel, featuring 42 enclosed compartments and boasting "an experience as grand as the magnificent Atlantic Ocean it overlooks."
The Giant Wheel on Mariner's Landing Pier in Wildwood is no different, offering riders scenic overviews of Five Mile Beach and the pier below. But on June 3, views became secondary to concerns about safety.
Jones was in Wildwood as part of a class trip rewarding students from PleasanTech Academy Charter School. Initially, a second child was supposed to go on the Ferris wheel with her, but he changed his mind, Wildwood police said, and Jones entered gondola 3 alone.
A state Department of Community Affairs preliminary report, released June 13, details what happened next.
"Shortly after she was loaded, another group was loaded. They were loaded into three gondolas that were approximately 180 degrees from gondola 3 (Abiah Jones' gondola). Reports from the operators indicated that the gondolas in proximity of gondola 3 were not occupied. At some point while the ride was in motion after the second group had been loaded Abiah Jones fell from the gondola she was in," the report reads.
After the report was issued, Morey's Piers noted on its blog that "The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has finalized their preliminary investigation into this tragedy and has concluded that there were no mechanical or operational deficiencies on the Ferris wheel. The DCA's report, however, recommends that single riders no longer be permitted. We strive to be at the forefront of safety initiatives and as a result, we will incorporate their recommendation into our policy and procedures upon opening of the ride in the next several days."
The state found the cause of the young girl's fall to be unknown, but Collins, a former Disney engineer who has spent decades working in the amusement ride industry, recalled a similar event in California. In 2006, a 6-year-old boy apparently tried to climb out of the gondola he was in, falling 90 feet to his death.
"The wheel will stop and that is what freaks them out," Collins said, explaining that children often don't realize that the ride will stop, leaving them at the top, as other passengers are loaded and unloaded.
The experience, Collins said, can be frightening even for an adult left to wonder when the wheel will move again.
"When it's really big, you wonder ‘am I going to get stuck up here,' " Collins said.
In the California case, "The 6-year-old decided he didn't want to be alone," he said.
The young boy's death led to an effort to require seat restraints, something Abiah Jones parents are pursuing in New Jersey, but the movement met with resistance from manufacturers.
Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, said the state had proposed adding restraints to the ride, but the effort was opposed by ride manufacturers.
Collins said the idea of adding restraints meant essentially redesigning and reengineering the wheel.
Instead, some manufacturers supported a move that said no single riders be allowed, a move Collins called reasonable.
"Single riders are a problem with a wheel," Collins said.
However, Monterroza said currently California does not have any specific regulations in place regarding the number of riders.
Seay cautioned that requiring two riders, as New Jersey is proposing, is not a guarantee that other accidents won't happen.
"I also think the idea of requiring two riders needs to be thought through carefully. I have worked at a theme park and have seen individuals behave unsafely on rides specifically because there were others with them on the ride who were encouraging or daring inappropriate action," Seay said.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew said last week that he had not been approached by anyone with suggestions for a new law or state regulations, but he said he was willing to meet with the family and industry leaders to discuss the matter.
"I would want to do it carefully," Van Drew said. "We need to understand what happened before I push for new regulations."
Clyde Wagner of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials said that the manufacturer of any ride has a set of safety standards that operators must adhere to and in some cases they include height requirements or say no single riders for the many types of Ferris wheels made including those with gondolas or bench seats.
"To me, a child has to have an adult with them," Wagner said.
But Wagner, who was on his way to inspect a ride in South Carolina as he spoke to a Press reporter, said he was not aware of any state that required gondolas to have seatbelts. He also recently inspected the Sky Wheel in Myrtle Beach.
"The gondolas are deep enough when you sit down, along with the railings and doors, that if you keep your hands and feet inside that's the safety standard," Wagner said.
Wagner, who has spent 45 years in the amusement industry, said there have been accidents, but he was not aware of anyone ever being ejected from the seat of a Ferris wheel.
"The ones I can recall .... It was pretty much patron error," Wagner said. "This certainly isn't common. This is a very uncommon situation."
Wagner and others in the industry have been following the case, which quickly appeared on industry web sites such as rideaccidents.com.
Others in the industry, such as Gillian's Wonderland Pier owner Jay Gillian, have been watching as well. The Ocean City amusement park operates a 140 foot tall Giant Wheel, which has enclosed gondolas similar to a bird cage.
"Any time there's an accident, our hearts and prayers go to the families," Gillian said.
He said his company plans to raise the minimum height for riders, which is currently 40 inches on the Ocean City Giant Wheel, to 48 inches.
The state is establishing a minimum height requirement of 54 inches to ride without a parent or guardian in open compartment Ferris wheels along with plans to require at least two riders per gondola.
"We're a safe industry, but there are going to be accidents," Gillian said, adding, "I'm confident our Giant Wheel is safe."
Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township features a 150-foot Schwarzkopf Ferris wheel that has been operating since the park opened in 1974.
Kristin Siebeneicher, communications manager for the theme park, said in an e-mail that the Ferris wheel features enclosed, as opposed to open, gondolas with locking doors and is operated to the manufacturer's rules and regulations.
"We have never experienced a safety issue related to this ride," she said, adding that, "If the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs' guidelines exceed those rules, such as requiring two riders per gondola, we will always adhere to or exceed the most stringent guidelines provided."
California attorney Robert Allard, who worked with Collins in a case involving a Yo-Yo ride accident that left a 14-year-old with brain damage, said he believes the industry, however, needs national regulation. "There should be standards that apply to portable and permanent rides alike," he said.
In his case, the ride was a portable ride that collapsed and injured four siblings. It resulted in a $3.15 million settlement.
"I'm all for consumer safety in this industry," Allard said.
The Web site www.saferparks.org was established as a consumer advocacy site about the amusement industry and it also supported federal regulation of permanent amusement parks and rides given the lack of consistency from state to state.
Collins said that New Jersey, however, is already known as one of the most stringent states when it comes to ride safety, requiring complete engineering reviews and inspections before new rides are allowed to open.
The process, he said, can drive foreign manufacturers nuts, but "I use them as a standard for other states."
Ferris wheels, Collins added, are among the safest rides out there.
"They are generally a very safe and very benign amusement ride and that goes for the big ones and the small ones," Collins said.
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