Money & Business

Are Zip Lines Safe? Industry Faces New Questions Following Girl's Death

By / Jul 6, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A fatal zip-line accident involving a 12-year-old girl in North Carolina has legislators talking regulation at the state level. The activity, which has grown popular in recent years, is largely regulated by association-based certification in most states.

When the zip lines are working properly and are fully secure, the devices can offer excitement to thrill-seekers.

But when things go wrong, significant issues are raised. Such issues are currently being addressed in North Carolina, where legislators are debating whether industry accreditation programs are enough to keep the public safe. The discussion comes in the wake of last month’s death of a 12-year-old at a summer camp.

Bonnie Sanders Burney died after falling 20 feet when a rope broke on the zip line she was using. The death, the second caused by a zip-line accident in North Carolina, led to the closure of the zip lines at the YMCA’s Camp Cheerio. Following the accident, other camps also considered closing down their zip lines.

“While our single Zip Lines are very safe and in good condition, we believe that it is in the best interests of our staff to close all zip lines for the short term,” the camp wrote in a letter to parents.

The accident also led state Rep. Ted Davis Jr. to add language to a proposed bill aimed at regulating the state’s amusement industry. Now, House Bill 39 would also require research to determine whether the state needs similar rules for zip lines.

“I realize there is human error, and I realize there are accidents,” Davis told the Raleigh News & Observer. “But I just felt like I had to go the extra mile to make sure that these zip lines are uniformly required to get inspections and insurance, all those kinds of things. I mean, if I sit here and do nothing, and another child dies, I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

Is Certification Enough?

Zip lines, which only face state-level regulations in nine states, have largely been managed by groups such as the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which is focused specifically on certifying zip lines and similar equipment; and the American Camp Association (ACA), which certifies such equipment as part of a camp’s overall certification. While Camp Cheerio was accredited by the ACA, many other uncertified zip lines are set up in backyards or by camps.

But ACCT admits that even with certification and high safety standards, there’s danger.

“The industry is generally safe,” ACCT Executive Director James Borishade told the Charlotte Observer. “And I know that that’s not comforting coming off the recent tragedy in North Carolina. … As with any adventure industry, you have some exposure to risk.”

ACCT emphasizes that the work should be left to accredited builders, something that North Carolina-based zip-line builder Ken Jacquot agrees with.

Jacquot, an ACCT member, has spent years focused on building zip lines in North Carolina, and while he’s opposed government regulation in the past, the issues around the devices—particularly when put together by amateurs—have led him to now support regulation. He’s even worked with ACCT to launch a committee that helps states create rules for zip lines.

“Everybody should be held to a certain quality control,” Jacquot told the News & Observer. “And when something happens, we want to analyze and correct it. To me, the family that had this tragedy occur deserves that, and we owe it to them. This child deserves that.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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