Kane In Your Corner: How safe are traveling carnivals that come to New Jersey?

How safe are rides at New Jersey's traveling carnivals and fairs? A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds New Jersey benefits from one of the best ride inspection programs in the nation. But it can be difficult to judge the safety records of carnival operators because there are questions about whether New Jersey's accident-reporting rules are being followed, and many other states have no rules at all.

Summer is fair season in New Jersey, a time for food, games and especially rides. This year, as in years past, the rides at the New Jersey State Fair in Augusta are being provided by America's biggest and oldest carnival operator, Reithoffer Shows. The company has been in business since 1896, and co-owner Rick Reithoffer, a fourth-generation carnival operator, says safety is his top priority.

"The state inspectors come out here and they like working with our organization because we have very good equipment and we keep it in top-notch shape," Reithoffer says.

But Reithoffer Shows' safety record isn't perfect. The company reported three accidents during its time in New Jersey in 2015, including a young child who had parts of two fingers amputated while inside a funhouse. Rick Reithoffer calls the injury "a freak accident", saying the young girl managed to wedge her fingers into a tiny space between a spinning disk and the floor, and says his company has installed a rubber guard to ensure it can't happen again. Reithoffer Shows has also been sued 10 times in the past decade, with many of the lawsuits alleging personal injuries. But as the largest carnival operator in America, Reithoffer says his company is naturally more prone to litigation, which he calls "an occupational hazard in the amusement industry nationwide."

The good news for New Jersey carnival-goers is that rides here are arguably safer than just about anywhere else, because inspectors, employed by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, check out every piece of every ride as it is assembled. That's a level of protection that does not exist in many other states. 

New Jersey is also one of a few states that requires carnivals to report ride-related accidents that result in first aid. That makes it difficult to assess an operator's performance elsewhere. "There is very little federal oversight or regulations," says Deborah Hersman of the National Safety Council. "They're not required to report their injuries."

There is also some doubt about the reliability of New Jersey's ride-related accident reporting. In Part two of this investigation, News 12 New Jersey's Walt Kane spoke with a water park operator who admitted he no longer reports accidents unless they result in serious injury requiring treatment by medical professionals. That would be a violation of state regulations, but he says state inspectors told him to do that. Reithoffer Shows also only reported serious injuries in 2015, and did not report any that simply required first aid. But questioned by Kane In Your Corner, Rick Reithoffer insisted he had actually filed additional accident reports and did not know why they did not appear in the state's database.

"Those might be the only three that you have," Reithoffer said. "But I have a list of what we reported with the state. Maybe you didn't see the same list as ours."

Kane In Your Corner asked Reithoffer Shows to provide the additional accident reports the company says it sent to the state, but it has not yet done so. Tammori Petty, spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs says, "The information you received accurately reflects what we received. If Reithoffer sent additional reports, we did not receive them."

View the complete NJ database of ride related accidents for the past 10 years.

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