Folding Lawn Chairs are More Dangerous than Roller Coasters

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Luckily, this year has brought news of relatively few amusement park fatalities and injuries. I was hesitant about my most recent visit to Dorney Park in Pennsylvania, but listened to the encouragement of my friends and statistics on the Internet to boost my confidence. Between 1987 and 2000, only 51 people were killed on these rides, according to one statistic I found. I came back from the amusement park unscathed and adrenaline-filled after riding on a couple of coasters (mostly due to peer-pressure) but my concerns about the safety of these rides has not vanished. Stupidly, I wanted to be as oblivious as possible when I got to the park but now, looking back at just how many things could have gone wrong as I plunged downward at 70 miles per hour only restrained by a lap bar, it all seems more real.

The regulation of amusement rides is a very complicated process, it turns out. There has long been a conflict regarding whose jurisdiction they fall under. The federal government regulates attractions that cross state lines, like rides you would find at traveling carnivals, while state governments regulate amusement parks. Nonprofits like the American Society for Testing and Materials set industry standards for the owners of parks and producers of ride components. States are free to regulate however they see fit and many of them choose to require parks to buy massive amounts of insurance and subject them to inspections that the parks must pay for. States also mandate daily equipment tests and set restrictions on types of workers parks can employ. I was surprised by the fact that some states, like Florida, leave parks to police themselves as long as they’re large enough. Disney World and Universal Studios are two examples. Other states are stricter. California requires amusement parks to report all injuries related to rides that result in an ER visit.

The federal/state dispute began in the 1970s, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was created. The amusement park industry, which formed in the late 1800s, resisted the CPSC with the claim that rides were not consumer products that could actually be owned or operated by users. In 1977, Chance Manufacturing Co. was sued for a ride called Zipper, whose door locks were faulty and led to four deaths. This set a precedent for the CPSC’s right to regulate the industry. But in 1981, Congress stripped the CPSC of its power by writing in what’s known as the “roller-coaster loophole” that only allows it to regulate temporary rides. Now the CPSC mostly publishes statistics about home appliance and power tool fatalities and injuries and there’s no federal agency to collect information on amusement parks. What is quoted as a CPSC statistic in a study or article is actually an estimate.

A Congressman from Massachusetts named Edward J. Markey tried to revive the CPSC in its old form in 2007, even getting the head of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, Jim Prager, on his side.  Prager played an important part in getting the CPSC stripped of its power initially. But Prager, in a change of heart said, “The cost-cutting of the last 25 years has reduced the industry capacity for safety. Amusement park companies and parks are today more likely to be run by financial wizards or sports marketing gurus than industry professionals. The argument that fixed-site attractions have sufficient incentive to be safe because of the attendance decline potential in reaction to adverse publicity has been muted by the consolidation of the industry and the international draw of its biggest parks… Insurance programs mandated by states or maintained by the operating amusement park companies are often touted as assuring ride safety but many of these programs have gaping holes rendering the programs essentially meaningless. Some state licensing or inspection programs were created to serve not the public, but the industry, providing an illusory aura of safety.” To put the revenues of the entire industry into perspective, Six Flags alone made $1.02 billion in 2008.

I considered things like ejection and falls from a ride before, but potential damage to the brain and other organs not immediately noticeable was something that never came to mind for me. The Henry Ford Hospital did a study into trauma induced by roller coasters on the ear. One patient turned his head on a “roller coaster he was riding [that] reaches a maximum speed of 120 mph within 4 seconds… [It was] estimated that the patient’s right ear was exposed to 0.6 PSI when the roller coaster accelerated. While not enough to perforate the ear drum, the pressure was enough to cause barotrauma to the ear.” There’s also an issue of how many G’s the human body can withstand. A trained pilot can withstand 12 times the force of gravity. As an example, the Kingda Ka roller coaster at Six Flags reaches 128 mph in 3.5 seconds and produces 1.67 G’s. The most intense roller coasters can produce up to 5 G’s.

Because no third-party agency is responsible for conducting studies, Six Flags itself recruited researchers to collect data on theme park rides in 2006. They gave the task to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, creating a team of biostatisticians, engineers, doctors and others. One researcher involved said, “Our study showed, on the basis of all known scientific evidence, that roller coasters are safe… We looked in detail at G-forces, government data, Six Flags data and the medical literature. We did not find anything to suggest that a public health issue exists.” The study also claims that roller coasters cause less injuries than folding lawn chairs. But the issue with this study was that it was partially based on CPSC data. The report, entitled “Six Flags Safety,” claims that the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions will establish a database with data collected by an independent auditing firm and that Six Flags will conduct its own research through a program called Neuro-Knowledge.

Still, no truly independent research is available. Having a federal agency to conduct these inquiries and collect data would be of great benefit but given the fact that the amount of highly publicized accidents has decreased recently, the agency would likely lose funding in our trying economic times. The watchdog keeps track of amusement park accidents and the last serious one occurred in February of this year, when a man was killed after a restraint system malfunctioned on a ride called “La Tour Eiffel.” The trouble was that this occurred in Brazil, so it was largely ignored by the American public. For now, we can only rely on estimates and research that may be biased (the amusement park industry is generally quick to jump to error by riders as a cause of accidents). I suppose it’d be better to forget all that I’ve learned before the next time I get on a roller coaster. As they say, ignorance is bliss.



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