The state should expand State Fair ride inspections

May 5, 2014 

Let’s hope that officials of the state Department of Labor are right, that their inspections of State Fair rides, including the now-infamous Vortex ride that malfunctioned Oct. 24, were perfectly competent.

That’s their contention anyway after the release last week of a report on an accident that injured five people, three of them seriously. People were thrown off the Vortex, which features spinning seats, when the ride suddenly started up again after safety restraints had been released after the ride had stopped.

The department has fined the operator of the ride, Family Attractions Amusement LLC of Valdosta, Ga., owner Joshua Macaroni and two employees. Macaroni and employee Timothy Tutterow are facing charges of felony assault with a deadly weapon. The fines, $114,200, seem modest considering the injuries. One injured family has sued the ride worker, Macaroni and two midway companies seeking $150 million, mainly in punitive damages.

Obviously, the Labor Department is going to defend its actions, but to say that no changes are planned for inspections at this year’s fair seems foolish in terms of rebuilding public confidence.

It’s true that inspectors did give the Vortex a thorough going-over and that extra inspectors were on hand because the ride was making its first appearance last year. But the inspectors did not check the electrical wiring inside control cabinets and a junction box.

Therein lies the rub, because the Labor Department says that’s where tampering took place. Officials say Macaroni installed a jumper wire to bypass safety controls on the ride so it would work. He’ll presumably answer for what he did and why when the case gets to court.

But for future fairgoers, it’s not comforting that the department says it’s going to do business as usual this year. Nor is it any more reassuring when the Agriculture Department, which runs the State Fair, says it has full confidence in the Labor Department. It would be perfectly legitimate for the agriculture officials to demand more in terms of ride inspections.

One consultant who specializes in safety for fairs and carnivals made an unsettling point. Ken Martin of Richmond, Va., said state inspectors simply might not have the expertise on electronics to do those kinds of inspections.

“You’ve got quite a few things to look at,” Martin said. “These North Carolina inspectors don’t have the electrical background and knowledge. I don’t know if North Carolina could afford to pay somebody with that kind of expertise on their staff.”

It sounds like that might well be a worthy investment.

No one would suggest that the Labor Department doesn’t want to do its job or has a disregard for the safety of fairgoers. But this was a serious accident, and when such things occur, those charged with oversight need to consider taking extra steps.

Fairgoers getting on rides this fall deserve the comfort of knowing that the ride has been inspected for proper mechanics and electronics. Perhaps Agriculture and Labor could split the cost of an inspector with expertise in electrical and electronic matters, someone who could train others. There’s no harm in that, and there might be great benefit.

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