In light of the unfortunate and shocking number of hayride accidents and other ride accidents that occurred at amusement parks, carnivals, water parks and other locations over the summer of 2016, it is perhaps no longer a secret that rides are regulated through a state-by-state patchwork system. That is, since Congress stripped Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CCPSC) ability to regulate fixed-site parks in the early 1980s, patrons to major theme parks have been forced to rely on a particular state’s approach to regulations. In some states, the approach to regulation is well-intentioned although limited by available resources. However, in certain states, no regulation exists for fixed-site rides.
As for portable rides typically utilized by traveling fairs and carnivals, the regulatory framework is significantly murkier. While CPSC regulates how rides are manufactured, federal oversight into these rides ceases at this point. There is no national standard governing the safe set-up, maintenance, or operation of rides.
Pennsylvania’s Ride Regulations Regime Is Better than Most, But Safety Gaps Exist
Chapter 139 of the Pennsylvania Code sets forth the framework for ride regulation in the state. Under the Code and in Pennsylvania, the government agency responsible for inspecting rides and ensuring that amusements are safe is the Department of Agriculture.
For one, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for tracking ride safety reports and incidents provided by the various amusement parks in the state. Under state law, fixed-site parks must provide reports every 30 days a ride is open to the public while traveling fairs and carnivals must report every time a ride is assembled for use by the public.
However, a 2013 report by Public Source found that at least some parks in the state failed to provide these required documents. Perhaps even more troubling, the same study found that the director of the agency was not aware of any missing reports until he was informed by the interviewer. As such and as one might expect, parks did not appear to suffer consequences for these failures to inspect or submit a report.
The study into the enforcement operations of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture found broad gaps in the regulatory regime. The study found that of the 117 permanent theme and water parks in the state required to report, 58% of parks were non-compliant in some regard. Ten percent of parks did not have any inspection records on file with the state.
Inconsistency in PA Ride Regulation May Conceal Safety Risks from Potential Riders
However, this report fails to capture the full extent of the problem that has developed in this system that was once seen as a model for other states. An additional problem that makes assessing the safety of rides more difficult than it should be for parents, guardians, and other caregivers is the fact that the ride regulation regime is applied unevenly and somewhat arbitrarily.
Consider the fact that in recent years many farms, dairies, and other agricultural operations have sought to develop new revenue streams to preserve the facility’s viability. In many cases, this includes agritainment options like hayrides and haunted houses. Most people would probably expect the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s ability to regulate to apply equally to both hayrides and haunted houses. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception that can result in guests to a farm, orchard, or other agritainment facility taking a greater safety risk than they expected or intended. Essentially, a haunted house falls within the Department of Agriculture’s authority to regulate. However, perplexingly to most lay observers, hay rides are outside of the scope of the agency’s authority to regulate. Thus, the only obstacle that stands between the general public and a farmer who thinks it’s safe to simply hitch a wagon to an old pick-up truck are state guidelines that do not have the force of law.
Pennsylvania’s Hay Ride Safety Guidelines
In light of an absence of regulation regarding Pennsylvania hayrides, private organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Retail Farm Market Association, Inc. have set forth guidelines intended to increase the likelihood of a safe and incident-free operation of a hayride attraction. Produced in collaboration with Penn State University, The organization provides safety fact sheets guiding the operation of the hayride activities, the use and maintenance of hayride equipment, and passenger safety. For example, the passenger safety guidelines set forth a safety continuum. At the “most protection” extreme of the continuum, the organization recommends for operators to:
- Load passengers from a permanent platform level with the wagon.
- Assign each passenger an individual seat in the trailer.
- Ensure that all seats should be fully contained within the perimeter of the trailer.
- Provide directions to riders prior to each journey before the hayride leaves the loading and unloading area.
By contrast, the “least protection” apparently recommended by the organization could include loading passengers into the wagon without steps. These recommendations also include allowing some passengers to remain standing during the ride or permitting riders to sit with their hands or feet dangling from the trailer. This least protective standard does not include any directions to passengers.
Clearly, there is significant room for variation within these recommendations. While the “most protection” recommendations begin to approach sufficiency, they fail to include other important safety assessments. “Most Protective” safety recommendations that target the equipment used to provide hayrides include the use of a ROPS tractor with greater than 75 horsepower, a well-maintained wagon intended for human riders and equipped permanent seating, safety chains, and wagon sides that are solid and at least 24 inches tall.
How Can Parents Avoid Hayride Safety Risks?
The first step in avoiding unintended risks when it comes to a hayride is an understanding that hayrides are not typically regulated in the state of Pennsylvania. Drawing from this initial revelation, a parent, guardian, or caregiver can better assess ride risk by looking for certain factors and conditions.
For instance, a farm that seems to re-purpose or re-use standard equipment may be thrifty, but it is highly likely that these cost-saving measures increase the risk of an accident. If a farm is hooking a wagon to a pickup truck or another small vehicle that is not a sufficiently-sized tractor, it may be wise to refrain from riding. Consider the fact that the Harvest Hills hayride accident occurred when the farm was utilizing an undersized 1979 Jeep with a questionable maintenance history when that fatal rollover accident occurred. Likewise, if the trailer seems to be insufficiently sized, is not equipped with side railing or seat-belts, or otherwise seems unfit for human riders it may be wise to skip the hayride.
Finally, parents and guardians should always take note regarding how the organization conducts its operations. It may be wise to avoid farms, orchards, and other locations where chaos seems to be the operative adjective. However, facilities that seem to be well-organized are often more likely to take the necessary steps to protect your child’s safety. Signs that a facility is well-run may include:
- Clearly delineated areas for queuing.
- Safety warnings and signs are clearly and conspicuously posted.
- Equipment appears well-maintained and designed for the purposes of providing hay rides.
- Employees and operators appear well-trained in safety procedures and are able to answer related questions without consulting a manager.
- The hayride operator instructs each wagon of riders regarding safe riding procedures and expectations.
- Rules are enforced and guests who do not follow them are asked to leave.
The above does not guarantee that a particular operation is safe, but over the course of 36 years of legal practice, the Pennsylvania hay ride accident lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm have noticed that the above factors often correlate with the overall safety of the facility. While we hope that this post assists individuals in assessing the safety of hay rides in Pennsylvania this fall, injuries do occur. If the injury was attributed to negligence or other improper actions on the part of the hayride operator, the lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm may be able to fight for compensation for your injuries. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, call (215) 246-9000 today.