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Zip lines don’t need more regulation, should be treated as a sport, report says

Kaylie Dake, (left) 11, of Walkertown and pal Sydney Witt, 11, of Winston-Salem ride a tandem zip line with a group visiting Carolina Ziplines Canopy Tour near Westfield, N.C., Wednesday, July 1, 2015.
Kaylie Dake, (left) 11, of Walkertown and pal Sydney Witt, 11, of Winston-Salem ride a tandem zip line with a group visiting Carolina Ziplines Canopy Tour near Westfield, N.C., Wednesday, July 1, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Less than a year after a deadly zip line accident at a North Carolina summer camp, the N.C. Department of Labor has issued a report that says the industry doesn’t need new regulations.

The study was conducted at the request of state legislators after 12-year-old Bonnie Sanders Burney fell to her death in June when a zip line snapped at Camp Cheerio in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

More than 100 zip lines are operating in North Carolina, and the industry is exempt from state oversight. Most zip line courses are inspected annually as a requirement of insurance policies.

Zip lines are steel cables, attached to towers or trees, that passengers glide across using pulleys and harnesses. The courses are often on slopes and give participants a speedy ride down a hill.

The Department of Labor, among its duties, is charged with inspecting amusement rides, and legislators asked the agency to determine whether zip lines should get similar treatment.

Zip lines are different, the department’s report argues. “Participation on a zip line or challenge course should be considered a sport (active entertainment) rather than an amusement (passive entertainment), and therefore should not be regulated as an amusement device,” the report says.

The report notes that zip line participants typically get training on how to use the equipment and must sign a waiver saying they recognize the risks involved.

“No amount of regulation will remove all risk from this industry, and the department is not convinced that additional regulations will create a safer industry,” the report said.

According to the report, 15 states have adopted regulations governing zip lines and challenge courses, but most of those states don’t directly inspect the facilities. Instead, operators must show proof that they have insurance and are getting an annual inspection from a third party.

The Department of Labor says most zip line accidents are caused by human error – including last year’s accident and another death in Oxford in 2006 – instead of an equipment failure.

“This suggests the need for greater emphasis on staff training and that the training should be site and design specific,” the report said.

The finding was based on “anecdotal evidence” because there’s no comprehensive list of zip line injuries and deaths, the report says.

The department report does suggest that legislators could consider requiring certified professional engineers to approve zip line and challenge course design and construction.

“Based upon the department’s research, it is unlikely that many owners and operators of this equipment are aware of this requirement,” the report said.

The Department of Labor’s findings are drawing praise from zip line operators, who recently formed a trade association called the N.C. Aerial Adventure Association. The group hired a lobbyist around the time the report was released, records show.

“Accidents resulting in injury to participants (are) rare,” the association wrote in a news release this week. “The assumption of risk and the active nature of these activities are what makes our industry exciting and compelling, and therefore it is more of a sport than an amusement experience.”

The Department of Labor report was submitted this week to the General Assembly’s agriculture committees; legislators have not yet scheduled a meeting to discuss the findings.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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