Earlier this week, a 28-year old woman died after falling about 150 feet into the ocean when her parasailing harness apparently broke. This has predictably led to calls for more regulation.
The accident occurred offshore of Pompano Beach, Florida. Mike Clary of the Sun Sentinel says four government agencies are investigating, including the Florida Wildlife Commission, the Coast Guard, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, and the National Transportation Safety Board. There has been a movement afoot to enact new regulations:
The industry operates with little regulation from state or federal governments. An analysis prepared for the Florida Legislature showed four people were killed in parasailing accidents in Florida from 2001 to 2011.
Bills in the Legislature to impose safety standards have repeatedly died, including one proposed in this year’s session.
That bill would have established safety standards for parasailing gear, required a minimum of $1 million in insurance, prohibited parasailing in hazardous weather and set other standards to protect riders. Both bills died in committee.
“We will look at every aspect of the case, and make a determination if this somehow should be regulated,” said [Florida Wildlife Commission’s Jorge] Pino.
Now doubt they will, but it is reasonable to doubt whether they have the capacity to regulate effectively or efficiently.
WOULD REGULATION REDUCE PARASAILING RISK?
A prerequisite for effective regulation is the regulator must have enough expertise, quite possibly more expertise than those in the business. It’s not clear whether any of the regulatory agencies that are investigating the accident have such expertise. (The National Transportation Safety Board might have the requisite expertise, but it is not a regulatory agency.)
Armed with this knowledge, the regulator must be capable of analyzing the problem correctly. Agencies often decide whether and how to regulate before they have enough information to understand the problem or examine alternative solutions.
For even the best regulations to be effective, all parties in the activity must voluntarily comply. This includes both the companies who offer parasailing experiences — and their customers, as some parasailing fatalities are probably attributable to customer error. (By comparison, the paper on roller coaster risks cited above indicates that at least four of the 29 customer fatalities from trauma were caused by patrons engaging in prohibited activities.)
Finally, the regulator must be able to cost-effectively enforce its rules. How this could be done isn’t obvious. A regulator could establish an extensive inspection program, and while that would ensure substantial employment for inspectors, the causal relationship between inspection and safety is not obvious. Also, the least safety conscious companies — the ones that regulation is actually targeting — would be the most highly motivated to game the inspection regime.
The effectiveness of any regulatory program must be compared with an unrelated market under similar conditions. That means taking into account all the ways government intervention can be ineffective and inefficient. Given the apparently low fatality rate in the unregulated market, it would not be hard for a real-world regulatory program to increase it.
IS PARASAILING RISKY ENOUGH TO JUSTIFY MORE GOVERNMENT REGULATION?
To evaluate whether this is a large or small risk requires data on the number of parasailing trips taken during that period. The Parasail Safety Council, a trade association of companies providing parasail experiences, provides useful data reproduced below. They are described as having been compiled by the director of the association “from numerous sources, such as: local, state and federal government accident reports, interviews, insurance claims, civil lawsuits and industry insiders; as well as, accident investigations which I have been personally involved in as an expert.” Better data are unlikely to exist because few others would be as interested as the Parasail Safety Council. The reason is that assuring safety is essential for increasing business.
|Accidents from 1982 to 2012||Harness||Risk||Gondola||Risk|
|Estimated Total Rides||130 million||23 million|
|Minor Injuries (no hospitalization)||1,240||9.5×10-6||6||4.6×10-8|
|Serious Injuries requiring hospitalization||429||3.3×10-6||2||1.5×10-8|
|Estimated Total Fatalities||72||5.5×10-7||—||0|
|Passenger support equipment failure||9||6.9×10-7||0||0|
|Inability to escape from the passenger support system||58||4.5×10-7||0||0|
The fatality in Florida occurred when the woman “somehow broke free of her safety restraint” while rising with her husband in a tandem harness. Had she been armed with the information above, it’s hardly likely that she would have decided not to sail on account of risk. A total of 72 fatalities in 130 million rides (2.4 per year) yields an average risk of 5.5 in 10 million (6 x 10-7). On any conventional risk ladder or other descriptive device, this would rank as a small risk.
Roller coasters might provide a useful risk comparison; an interesting web site ranks them across a range of thrill criteria. A 2005 paper published in the journal Injury Prevention counted 29 riders who suffered fatal traumatic injury in the US from May 1994 through May 2004 (2.9 per year). The authors had no estimates of the number of roller coaster rides, however, which makes it impossible to calculate risk. With 653 coasters operating in the US, the number of annual riders is surely very large. Roller coasters have, paradoxically, become much safer at the same time they have created the perception of ever-increasing risk. Meanwhile, amusement parks are regulated everywhere in the US.
Regardless of the magnitude of fatality risk from parasailing, it still may be worth reducing if the cost of risk reduction are less than the value of risks reduced, provided, of course, that risk reduction efforts do not drain parasailing of the perception of risk that may be essential to its popularity. The table above indicates that gondola-style parasailing is safer than harness-style, the kind involved in this week’s fatality in Florida. Customers certainly can choose which risk to bear when they decide which technology to use. If prospective customers believe that harness-style parasailing is too risky, they will gravitate to companies offering gondola-style technology.
The Parasail Safety Council publishes safety tips for prospective customers. They look a lot like common sense.
LICENSING: Licensing ensures you that you are under the supervision of a responsible operator. They should display their state and local licenses. Use one that operates from an established location. Avoid paying cash, a practice that unlicensed operators employ.
ESTABLISHED OPERATORS: Only parasail with established business operators who are insured by a state licensed agency.
WEATHER: Avoid parasailing in high wind, rain, fog or an approaching storm.
PRE-FLIGHT SAFETY BRIEFING: Make sure you get adequate safety briefing prior to your flight. This safety briefing should include a description of the activity itself, safety procedures in the event of an emergency, the proper use of hands signals, evacuation procedures. At this time participants who are afraid or intimidated should excuse themselves.
ALTITUDE: Parasailing at an altitude of more than 600 feet is discouraged, especially in close proximity to the shoreline or other objects.
PASSENGER AGE RESTRICTIONS: Although some operators claim you can parasail at virtually any age, the harness style passenger support requires some skills and in general it is NOT RECOMMENDED for passengers under 16.
Source: Parasail Safety Council