Roller Coasters: How Dangerous Are They?

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A roller coaster in Lancashire, England, UK. A woman recently died after falling off a roller coaster at a Six Flags in Texas.
Corbis

A tragic accident at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Texas left one woman dead, after she fell from the Texas Giant, billed as the tallest steel hybrid roller coaster in the world. Rosy Esparza, 61 who fell from the ride shortly after it started, reportedly had complained to the attendant that she did not believe her safety restraint was locked properly in place.

Esparza's death, while rare, highlights a critical lack of governmental oversight in the amusement ride industry, as well as the need for uniform safety standards nationwide. With no federal agency regulating safety on amusement park rides, Six Flags Over Texas will essentially investigate itself.

What sort of tips, tricks, and equipment are required for such a daring feat?

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"The industry has standards that have been in place for about 40 years from the American Society for Testing and Materials," said Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety analyst with KRM Consulting. "But the government has no oversight over fixed ride amusement parks like Six Flags. The amusement ride industry successfully lobbied Congress 40 years ago to remove the Consumer Product Safety Commission from its oversight responsibilities."

He added that some states have adopted the current standards into state law, but they are not the same all across the country.

Witnesses who were on the ride with Esparza said she alerted the attendant after the others' safety restraints clicked three times when locked in, but Esparza's clicked only once.

According to Martin, ride attendants are usually either very young or retired people who are working the ride as a second job.

"That means the rider is the last safety inspector before the ride takes off," said Martin. "If you don't like the way the ride operator looks or if you feel they’re not paying enough time or attention to your needs, you should get off of the ride."

A recent study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital found from 1990 to 2010, 92,885 children under the age of 18 were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for amusement ride-related injuries. Most of those injuries happened in the summer months, said Tracy Mehan, manager for translational research for the Center.

"We were pretty surprised at the number of incidents," Mehan said. "That's about 4,400 a year or 20 children a day. The most common injuries are broken bones, head and neck injuries. Consumers have to make sure they feel comfortable riding the rides. Trust your instincts and if you’re worried about the safety of the ride, choose a different activity."

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In addition to following your gut, the senior researcher on the study, Dr. Gary Smith, M.D., DrPH, offers important tips for consumers:

*Always follow height, age, weight and health restrictions for each ride

*Follow special instructions, including seating order or loading order, and instructions to keep hands and feet inside the ride

*Make sure you always use the safety equipment, seat belts and safety bars

*Know your child: If you don't think they will be able to follow all the rules, keep them off of the ride

*Avoid mall rides, if they are over a hard, unpadded surface or if they don't have a child restraint such as a seat belt.

Texas is one of 17 states that do not have a state-run agency in charge of amusement park ride inspections. Meanwhile, Senator Ed Markey (D-MASS) has introduced legislation every year since 1999 to pass federal regulations for amusement park safety.

Following Esparza's death, Markey issued a statement, which said in part, "A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour. This is a mistake."

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