It was supposed to be a day of fun at AJ's Family Fun Center near Grand Rapids in 2015. Rachel Gibbs wore a scarf on the cool August day. Staff at AJ's made no mention of the potentially dangerous item as Gibbs and her youngest son loaded into a go-kart and zipped off. During the ride, Gibbs’ scarf got caught in one of the go-kart’s axles, snapping her windpipe.
The injury left Gibbs severely brain-damaged. Today she is in a long-term care center outside of London, United Kingdom, less than an hour from where her husband and two sons live.
Gibbs’ sister, Corri Sandwick, has become an advocate for stricter safety laws at amusement parks in the wake of her family's tragedy.
Sandwick was at AJ’s that day and remembers several troubling aspects of the park’s safety protocols. She says there was no emergency phone, automated external defibrillator, or first-aid kit near the go-kart track.
When Gibbs’ husband Luke called emergency services from his British cellphone, the staff couldn’t remember the address of the facility.
As she looked into amusement park regulations after her sister's accident, Sandwick learned that the state agency responsible for overseeing amusement parks does not inspect operators’ safety procedures, despite a reference to safety recommendations in the state’s Carnival-Amusement Safety Act.
One reason: The department simply doesn’t have the funding to inspect for safety standards.
“There’s not enough fee generation within the permitting process to actually check that safety standards are in place at amusement parks,” Sandwick said. “The main thing that they’re going out to inspect is the mechanical equipment.”
Sandwick has worked with Michigan State Representative Thomas Albert (R-District 86) to address these gaps in safety procedures. Rep. Albert said he favors a voluntary approach to safety procedures, something similar to the Carolina Star Program, which recognizes workplaces and facilities that meet certain safety requirements.
“We don’t want to come down with a heavy hand and over-regulate and basically prohibit these businesses from being able to offer a good time for families to go to in the summer,” Albert said.
Stateside reached out to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs with specific questions about the department's oversight of carnivals and amusement parks in Michigan.
LARA confirmed that as the administrator of the Carnival-Amusement Safety Act, the department permits and inspects individual amusement park rides. They do not license amusement park operators, and they do not inspect amusement park safety procedures.
Regarding funding, LARA wrote that the revenue it generates from permitting and inspection is "insufficient for the administration of the Carnival Safety Amusement Act."
As a result, LARA would not recommend support for any future legislation that would increase oversight without an accompanying increase in revenue generated by permitting and inspection.
LARA’s full statement can be found here.
Stateside also reached out to AJ’s Family Fun Center for this story. They did not respond to our request for comment.