State Fair touts amusement ride safety record

Jay Bemer
Jay Bemer of International Leisure Consulting, a safety firm hired by the State Fair, inspects the spider ride in the midway.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

The Midway at the Minnesota State Fair will be whirling and rocking with riders today, not long after inspectors completed a round of final checks on the equipment.

Hoping to assure the public that rides are safe, state fair officials on Wednesday touted their safety record and vigilant monitoring of the 63 rides that make up the Midway and Kidway.

Safety concerns were heightened last month, after a Florida girl fell 100 feet to the ground from a free-fall ride at Wisconsin Dells, and was severely injured. The Minnesota State Fair does not have such a ride.

Jim Sinclair, the fair's deputy general manager, said the fair has never had a ride fatality. A fair employee for 35 years, Sinclair said he can't remember the last serious injury caused by a malfunctioning ride, and wants to keep it that way.

Onsite inspectors hired by the fair supervise all aspects of ride assembly before the fair opens, and stay on the premises throughout the fair. State law requires rides be inspected once a year, and Sinclair said the fair exceeds those standards.

"Portable amusement rides transported from fair to fair by carnivals are assembled, handled, taken down week to week," Sinclair said. "[They] actually get more scrutiny, because those pins that hold things together come out and go back in, and are looked at every time that happens."

Among the inspectors who examine all those pins and moving parts is Joe Bixler, who started as a ride operator in the 1970s before becoming director of park operations and maintenance. He now works as a consultant based in Seattle, and supervises the four-man team of inspectors.

Mike Demas and Joe Bixler
Mike Demas, left, owns the "Rock It", a new ride from the Netherlands that's making its American debut at the Fair this year. Joe Bixler, right, is an independent contractor the State Fair hired to check the safety of all 63 rides before, during and after the fair.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

On Wednesday, Bixler took a close look at a brand new ride called the Rock It, which rotates 360 degrees while spinning riders in their seats.

Imported from the Netherlands, the ride is making its American debut at the fair, said Bixler, who has worked with the ride's owner on the setup.

"As the rides come in, they're on trailers, and we look at them as they're unloading and assembling," Bixler said. "There's some areas that can be seen, for instance where this arm is attaching to the vehicles. But you can't see the inside of this. When they had it on the trailer, we could look at it and see the threads on these studs."

Newer rides like the Rock It use computerized warning systems similar to a car's warning for unfastened seatbelts or open doors.

But the biggest cause of accidents isn't mechanical failure, but human error -- and mostly rider error, Bixler said. Often, injuries occur when thrill-seeking riders stand up before they're supposed to, or switch places with others, throwing a ride's weight off balance.

"You certainly see everybody riding roller coasters putting their hands up in the air to gain the thrill," Bixler said. "Well, unfortunately, that's probably one of the worst thing you can do. The idea is to hang onto the lap bar -- not that it's going to pitch you out -- but don't help yourself out."

Bixler said customers need to heed height requirements and health warnings posted in front of each ride. They also should make sure the attendant is paying attention -- foot pedals that require operators to face the ride help -- and watch a ride beforehand to make sure it's one they might enjoy.

Bixler said he's a "coaster guy" himself. He worked on one for years. He gave one last tip on the way out of the Midway, walking past a ride called the Storm.

A Dallas newspaper gave it an 11 out of 10 on the vomit scale.

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