FOX 35 Investigates: Why aren't seatbelts required on amusement rides?

Could a simple seatbelt have kept 14-year-old Tyre Sampson from falling to his death on the Orlando Free Fall? 

His family’s attorneys and even ride builders say yes. 

"Ladies and gentleman this tragedy could absolutely been avoided with one thing – with this $22 seatbelt," said Michael Haggard during a news conference in April. Haggard is representing Sampson’s mother. 

Orlando ride creator Bill Kitchen also told us seatbelts make rides much safer. "This webbing can hold 6,000 pounds," Kitchen told FOX 35. "It instantly struck me – there must be some reason this wasn’t included because it provides such an extra margin of safety but it’s not there." 

FOX 35 found seatbelts, or a secondary restraint, may have been crucial in other ride accidents too. 

In 1999, 12-year-old Joshua Smurphat slipped out of his seat on a California drop ride - falling to his death. "I personally feel like that is something that every free fall ride should have. That would have prevented my brother’s death," said his sister, Alicia O’Leary. 

Mike Dwaileebe, who fell from the Superman ride at Darien Lake in New York that same year may have stayed in his rollercoaster seat had he be been buckled in. "On the negative Gs - I was coming out of my seat every time," he said. 

Despite high speeds, going upside down and G-forces – seat belts are not a requirement for all amusement rides. 

The Orlando Free Fall stands 430 feet tall, dropping riders at 75 miles per hour. A shoulder harness is the only restraint. "It’s below a minimum standard of care not to have a seatbelt on our own if you’re selling tickets on a $100 million ride," said Bob Hilliard, an attorney representing Sampson’s father. 

Digging through the records, FOX 35 found someone asked the ride manufacturer about adding seatbelts to the Free Fall. 

In this memo, the general manager of Funtime says the shoulder restraint, "…has two independent locking devices, and the shoulder restraints are monitored. There is no need for an extra safety or seat belt…"  

"Someone was concerned enough to write a letter to the manufacturer and say, this does not seem to be enough," Hilliard said during a one-on-one interview in front of the shutdown ride. 

We asked Hilliard if he knows who reached out to the manufacturer. "The lawsuit will identify, swear in and take a deposition of the person who decided to write it and the person who responded to it. We’ll ask them why did you write it. We’ll ask the manufacturer – why did you say no," he said. 

In Florida, the state doesn’t have its own rules when it comes to building amusement rides. It’s adopted industry standards – which is normal.  

So who does make the rules for how rides are built and operated?  It's the people, 1,000 volunteers, who wrote the ASTM Standards for amusement rides and devices. The committee that oversees the documents is made up of people who work in the amusement industry from around the world. The rules are constantly updated. The F24 committee leadership declined an interview with us but answered some of our questions over email. 

We asked if they plan on making any changes in the wake of Sampson’s death. An administrator sent us this statement saying: "Depending on all of the results that are made public by the investigation and through the state of Florida, members may recommend revisions which then would need to be submitted into the ASTM consensus process." 

"We ride in cars that have seat belts and airbags, so I think redundancy is a good thing. You can have not only the harness but also seatbelts," said state Representative Geraldine Thompson. 

Rep. Thompson says she may require belts in new legislation addressing ride safety.   

"This is one of the few times when there has been this kind of visibility, this kind of scrutiny, this kind of attention and sometimes that’s what’s needed to bring about change. I would not want to have this young man’s life and memory to be in vain," she said. 

Thompson says she plans to introduce the Tyre Sampson bill next session. 

So why don’t manufacturers just include a secondary belt on all rides? Industry insiders say in some cases it has to do with money. Adding additional belts means more belt checks – which means customers can’t get on and off the rides as quickly.