Zip line regulations scrutinized after 4 summer deaths
Raleigh, N.C. — As 12-year-old Bonnie Sanders Burney soared over a 40-foot ravine at her sleep-away camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the tether attaching her to a dual zip line snapped — plunging her to her death.
Her tether had been mistakenly draped over the line’s second steel cable and melted from the friction.
Bonnie is one of at least four people killed in challenge course incidents across the country this summer. The deaths have drawn attention to a regulatory safety net full of holes.
The federal government does not regulate the challenge course industry and does not keep data on how many courses exist or how many accidents occur. While some states have put regulations in place, others allow operators of zip lines and high ropes courses to self-regulate.
In North Carolina, zip lines are exempt from state regulation. Bonnie’s death led the General Assembly to swiftly pass a law requiring officials to research possible regulations.
“The point is these things are obviously dangerous and they need to be monitored. They need to be regulated,” said Rep. Ted Davis, R-Wilmington, who introduced the bill.
North Carolina challenge course operator Ken Jacquot said he’s watched the industry grow for decades — recently shifting to a for-profit model. Jacquot said companies need to adapt design and training standards as their operation changes.
“Just because a camp has a well-facilitated team-building program, doesn’t mean you can drop in a zip line tour or point-point zips or adventure parks — specifically that you’re going to open up to a more general public experience or high throughput volume — and use the same operational strategies,” Jacquot said.
Jacquot runs Challenge Towers, a company based in Boone, North Carolina, that designs, builds and operates challenge courses across the country. He is also a former board member of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, a national trade organization that develops industry safety standards.
Camp Cheerio, where Bonnie Sanders Burney had been, follows ACCT guidelines, said David Ozmore, the director of the YMCA of High Point, which operates the camp.
Camp Cheerio’s three zip lines had been designed, installed and inspected by an ACCT-certified company, a policy the camp’s insurance company demanded, Ozmore said. The camp’s adventure course supervisor, trained by ACCT standards, had harnessed Burney in.
“It was truly an accident,” Ozmore said.
In some states, ACCT compliance is voluntary. In others, it is required.
In July, a zip line worker fell 150 feet to his death in Utah after being pulled off the landing deck while helping a rider come to a safe stop. The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating. Utah doesn’t have specific standards for zip lines or other challenge courses.
In South Carolina, a 16-year-old girl fell 100 feet to her death when she became unhooked from a high ropes course for which her camp did not have the required permits. The state has closed the camp’s courses.
Tennessee suspended the permit of a camp where an 18-year-old man’s neck was entangled in a safety harness during a fall. He later died from his injuries. The Navitat zip line adventure park in Knoxville was inspected prior to the accident by an inspector certified by ACCT.
A post-incident inspection by a second ACCT-certified inspector found that the safety lanyard, along with the combination of protective equipment, created a safety hazard, according to Navitat spokeswoman Abby Burt. Navitat’s summary of the inspection states that all equipment met ACCT standards but “should henceforth be considered ‘incompatible.’”
The ACCT issued an advisory notice recommending operators reconsider the potential safety risk associated with this equipment. ACCT did not respond to requests for comments.
In North Carolina, Camp Cheerio’s zip lines have been shut down for the summer. The YMCA of High Point will decide this year whether to reopen the challenge courses next summer, Ozmore said.
“We will certainly respect and will follow the state guidelines,” Ozmore said. But even with state regulation and ACCT compliance, he said, there is no “guarantee of perfection.”
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