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Theme Park Regulation to Become Law : Legislation: Gov. Davis, prompted by recent thrill ride accidents in California, announces he will sign inspection bill.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alarmed by a recent string of amusement park accidents, Gov. Gray Davis said Friday that he will sign a bill to create the first state inspection program for theme parks, a move that will end a three-decade battle to regulate the industry.

“Families should be able to go to amusement parks and enjoy themselves without worrying about their safety,” said Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante.

The news that the governor will sign the theme park regulation bill ends months of suspense during which backers and opponents of the legislation could only speculate on his views.

Bustamante said Davis was influenced by recent accidents that underscored the potential danger of some of the thrill rides at the state’s 77 permanently situated amusement parks. The state already regulates rides at traveling carnivals.

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“The governor has been very concerned about the number of accidents that happened at amusement parks around California in such a short time,” Bustamante said.

On Aug. 22, a 12-year-old boy tumbled 129 feet to his death at Paramount’s Great America Theme Park in Santa Clara. Five people were injured on the GhostRider roller coaster at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park the next day. Days later, 28 riders dangled in midair for hours at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, and last week at the same park, a 9-year-old boy was injured in a fall from the Scat-A-Bout scrambler ride.

But it was death of a Washington man after a Christmas Eve accident at Disneyland that spawned the legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch).

The park visitor was hit by a metal cleat that broke loose from one of the tamest rides at the park--the Columbia sailing ship. His wife and a park worker were seriously injured.

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In news reports after the accident, Torlakson said the public became aware that the state did not inspect theme park rides and that the parks did not have to report accidents. California has been one of only 12 states without regulation of parks.

Public awareness set the stage for passage of the bill in the Legislature, Torlakson said.

A similar measure of his last year was squelched early on by the powerful theme park industry, which argued that the parks’ own safety measures were superior to any the state could enact.

Although he had not been officially notified by the governor, Torlakson said Friday night that he was encouraged to hear the news.

“I’m convinced [the law] will mean safer theme parks and . . . a system of accountability that will reduce risks for millions of families visiting our theme parks,” he said.

Bustamante said he did not know when the governor will sign the measure. He has 30 days from its passage Tuesday to do so.

The inspection program, which includes setting statewide safety standards for rides and requirements for inspections and reporting of accidents, will take a year to set up. It will go into affect in 2001.

Though the public posture of the theme park industry was to cooperate with Torlakson on the legislation this year, the parks also tried to dilute the bill several times. Lobbyists for the parks tried to get rid of state inspections and minimize the number of accidents that would have to be reported.

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A turning point in the bill’s fate came in May when Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said he supported the legislation and would use his influence to help it pass.

The measure went on to pass easily in the Assembly--its toughest challenge--and the state Senate. Opponents argued that a new state bureaucracy would be useless in preventing accidents.


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