Roller Coaster Safety

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Every year some 319 million people visit amusement parks in the United States. Most of these fun seekers line up for the ever-faster, ever-more-towering roller coasters for what they hope will be the ride of their lives.Should they stop to wonder if it could be the last ride of their lives?

Consider for a moment Mike Dwaileebe's dramatic spin three years ago on the Superman coaster at Six Flags Darien Lake in New York. Dwaileebe, who weighed more than 400 pounds, reportedly could not close his lap bar and flew out of Superman not like a bird or a plane, but rather, as his lawyer put it in the Orange County Register, "like a cork out of a champagne bottle." Dwaileebe had good reason to celebrate. He sustained only broken ribs and a hernia.

Incidents such as this are receiving increased media coverage, but whether coasters are becoming more dangerous is, well, up in the air. Accurate statistics on ride-related injuries are virtually impossible to come by. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), deaths in U.S. amusement parks averaged four per year from 1987 to 1999, though injuries soared between1996 and 1999. But these numbers aren't comprehensive: Many parks do not even report injuries.

There is no federal oversight of the industry and regulations vary from state to state. California, for example, is trying to phase in legislation passed in 1999 that requires parks to report ride-related injuries leading to emergency room treatment, while Florida exempts parks that employ (or whose parent companies employ) more than 1,000 people from having to report accidents at all.

To that end, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts has introduced legislation that would give oversight of rides to the CPSC to protect the public against unreasonable risks.

Markey is also part of a push to impose standards for what he calls "supercoasters." These superspeedy rides, like the Xcelerator at Knott's Berry Farm, which launches riders from 0 to 82 mph in 2.3 seconds, subject the body to motions and g-forces unheard of a generation ago. How much is too much has yet to be determined, but reports of brain and neck trauma are up. "The average roller coaster riders are not graduates of astronaut training like John Glenn or Sally Ride, and they surely should not be placed in a situation where the forces of the ride test the limits of human endurance," Markey says.

It will take years before there is a reliable consensus on how much force is too much. In the meantime, be sure you protect yourself:

  • Obey all the posted restrictions regarding height, weight, age, and health.
  • Follow the rules. Wear the lap belt; don't rock the car.
  • If the operator isn't paying attention to the coaster or if the ride appears dilapidated, walk away.
  • Be alert to unruly riders and report any misconduct.
  • Never force or cajole children into trying a roller coaster that frightens them. Scared children will sometimes attempt to leave a ride while it is moving.

If you take these simple precautions, the worst thing likely to happen is you'll lose your lunch.

This article was first published in July 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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