ORLANDO, Fla. – A ride operator at the Central Florida Fair ushers families and children into a replica pirate ship and pushes a button, causing the Spanish Galleon to start swinging back and forth. The carnival worker then pulls out his cellphone and begins tapping his thumb on the screen.
[WEB EXTRA: Fair workers caught on video texting]
At the Indian River County Fair in Vero Beach, a Tilt-O-Whirl operator repeatedly looks at his smartphone, sometimes for 20 seconds or longer, and only briefly glances up to make sure passengers are seated and the ride is running properly.
As small children ride around in a circle on small trucks at the Palm Bay Fair, the employee who is supposed to be supervising them is instead looking at his phone.
And at the Seminole County Fair, children crash into each other on bumper cars as the attraction's operator focuses on his mobile device.
"I feel a little guilty letting my child go on the ride when I see that," said Carrie Andrews, who was visiting the Seminole County fair with her son. "I just don't think it's a very good practice."
Neither do the companies that provide the amusement rides to those fairs. James E. Strates Shows, Wade Shows and Swyear Amusements all have policies that prohibit employees from using mobile devices while operating rides.
A Local 6 investigation found that a vast majority of carnival workers follow those rules. However, at every fair we visited, we captured video of employees using their phones when they were supposed to be making sure the rides were running safely.
"Obviously that's bad," said fairgoer Jasmine Rojas. "It's kind of like texting and driving, but you're texting and operating a huge machine that people are on."
In 2005, before the proliferation of smartphones and mobile devices seen today, the Consumer Product Safety Commission studied carnival ride injuries and deaths. The government agency examined five incidents involving passengers who escaped the rides' restraint systems, including a 3-year-old girl who died after falling from the vehicle.
In each case, the CPSC determined "the operator of the ride was looking away from or not paying attention to the ride." The 2005 report does not mention cellphone use, but the CPSC concluded "the ability of the ride operator to see the riders... is crucial for the ride operator to detect rider attempts to defeat the restraints."
"Safety is the top priority for our company and we have an excellent safety record," said Frank Zaitshik, president of Wade Shows, which provides rides for the Central Florida Fair. "In an effort to eradicate even these isolated policy violations, we are instituting a new cellphone policy where ride employees must check their phones before going to their work station. Employees will not be permitted to have a phone on their person while operating a ride."
The company will also be installing signs outside attractions asking guests to report distracted ride operators, according to Zaitshik.
George Weston, Jr., general manager of Strates Shows, thanked Local 6 for looking into cellphone policy violations at his company's fairs in Seminole and Indian River counties.
"I'm troubled by it. It's not acceptable to me and we're going to address it," said Weston.
A representative for Swyear Amusements, which provided attractions to the Palm Bay Fair, confirmed the company's policy prohibits ride operators from using cellphones. Calls to the company's Florida-based vice president were not returned.
Chip Wilson was troubled to see Local 6's video of ride operators texting, but he believes most fair employees follow the rules.
"I was watching for a bunch of that stuff people not watching the kids on the rides," said Wilson, who was visiting the Seminole County Fair with his daughter. "For the most part I thought they were fairly attentive."
Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld also prohibit ride operators from using mobile devices while operating rides, according to those companies' spokespeople.