Zip lines, a popular amusement that can send people speeding high above the ground, are not regulated or inspected by any government authority in Kentucky.
Nobody on the state or national levels can say how many commercial zip lines exist or how safe they are because nobody keeps track. The Kentucky Agriculture Department persuaded state lawmakers in 2012 to exempt zip lines from the "rides and attractions" that it is required by law to oversee.
The department says its rides and attractions inspectors — eight at present, with two more to be hired — cannot adequately monitor what appears to be a growing number of zip lines.
"You know how they inspected zip lines prior to this administration?" asked Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. "We were told they just sent the biggest ol' boy they could find down the line. If he made it, it was considered safe. Seriously. And we weren't going to be a part of vouching for something if we couldn't be sure it was safe."
The self-regulated zip-line industry normally gets attention after an accident, such as the one that occurred May 10 during a crawfish festival at The Red Mile, a racetrack in Lexington. An 11-year-old girl riding a zip line fell about 20 feet and landed on her back after a carabiner clip connecting her harness to the line broke, Lexington police said. The girl suffered serious injuries and was taken to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.
No one was cited as a result of the girl's fall because no laws were broken, police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said. The girl's relatives can hire a lawyer to sue the zip line's owners if they choose, Roberts said.
"To be frank, this is a civil matter. There's not really anything more for us to do," Roberts said.
A spokeswoman for The Red Mile did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Managers of several zip lines around Central and Eastern Kentucky say their courses and equipment are inspected at least annually by companies certified by the Association for Challenge Course Technology, based in Deerfield, Ill., which issues written standards for the industry. The managers said they also conduct their own safety inspections throughout the year.
"We've had 50,000 participants since we opened in 1992 and we have never had an issue," said Trent Ellsworth, director of Asbury University's Center for Adventure Leadership in Wilmore.
Referring to the girl's fall at The Red Mile, Ellsworth said a carabiner clip that is used properly and maintained should not break.
"And there should never be a situation in which one carabiner failing causes such a catastrophic event," Ellsworth said. "Were this being done properly, there should have been some other piece of equipment backing it up."
The Kentucky Tourism Cabinet encourages visitors to sample from a dozen zip lines around the state through its "Zip the Bluegrass" publicity campaign, but it doesn't know anything about the individual operations, agency spokesman Gil Lawson said.
"We do not regulate or keep safety records on zip lines at all. We simply promote them as tourist attractions," he said.
Nationally, experts say zip lines run the gamut from highly professional courses with little risk of injury to slipshod outfits, sometimes erected for just a few days. The problem, experts say, is that a customer doesn't know for certain which sort of zip line she's using. Picking the wrong course can mean crashing to Earth or into a tree at the far end of the line.
Most states do not regulate zip lines, choosing instead to consider them a "sport," which assumes customers arrive with some knowledge of what they're doing, said Jonathan Brooks, president of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
Because of the lack of government oversight, Brooks said, "I'm not aware of any national database where you can see how many accidents there have been on zip lines. They're not like a merry-go-round, for instance, or a roller coaster. It's hard to get any sort of data about them."
That's likely to change, he said.
"They're popping up everywhere," Brooks said of zip lines. "As time goes on, I think you'll see more and more states say, 'Yeah, we need to start regulating these. We need a minimum set of standards for everyone to make sure this zip line isn't just a cable loosely attached to a light pole.'"
After several zip-line accidents in Tennessee, including one near Nashville that broke a woman's pelvis, state regulators established rules for installation and operation and set a goal of annual state inspections for each course.
"Some were pretty good about self-regulating, but some, quite frankly, were not," said Lee Bentley, the state's amusement device inspector manager.
However, Tennessee's two amusement ride inspectors have laid eyes on only about 20 percent of known zip lines, Bentley said. Aside from their limited manpower, he said, they're at a disadvantage because some operators fail to register with the state as the rules require.
"We're still in the process of trying to locate all of them," Bentley said. "Sometimes we'll be driving to do an inspection at one place and we'll see a new one that we didn't know about because they didn't register, so we'll have to stop and remind them about the law."