Why Stadiums Are Safer Than You Think

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Stadiums are safer than you think. For sure, recent deaths by fans at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and Atlanta's Braves Field in the past month may seem like a gruesome trend. But the reality is that going to a football, baseball or even race car track with tens of thousands of other spectators is a safer bet than say fishing, or even playing golf.

On Sunday, 32-year-old Kevin Hayes of Hayward was walking on a ramp between a parking area and Candlestick Park when he fell to a sidewalk below. Also on Sunday, a railing gave way at an Indianapolis Colts' game, injuring two fans who were leaning against a barrier near a tunnel leading to the Oakland Raiders locker room.

But in the past decade, there have been only 41 U.S. stadium accidents leading to 14 deaths, according to the Institute of Study of Sports Incidents at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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In comparison, a report out this year by NOAA found 26 deaths since 2006 of fishermen who were hit by lightning.

"I agree that if you look at the big picture, it isn't that many incidents over a long time," said Alana Penza, director of the Institute. "But it does seem to be an attention getter."

Penza has found people have died or been injured jumping for foul balls (such as Shannon Stone in 2011 who died in front of his son at a Texas Rangers game), footballs or sliding down escalators the wrong way. Penza said situational awareness is key to keeping safe when spending several hours in a crowded, unfamiliar setting like a stadium.

Of the 14 deaths at stadiums, four were attributed to use of alcohol. In fact, witnesses said the man in San Francisco appeared to be intoxicated, according to news reports.

"Any loss of life at an entertainment venue is unacceptable, but it doesn't advance this conversation about whether these buildings are safe," said Steve Adelman, an attorney in Scottsdale, Ariz., and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, a group that works on preventing accidents at stadiums across the country. "We don't know to what extent they contributed to their own demise."

Adelman expects that stadium managers will likely review their procedures after the accidents this weekend. A similar review led to new safety measures in 2011 at the Texas Ranger stadium after Stone’s death, which occurred during a game broadcast to millions of television viewers.

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Adelman said that fans at NASCAR races have been extremely safe, despite the speed and crashes on the racetracks that sometimes injure or kill drivers. The exception are open course events such as desert rallies, where crowds often line the roadway.

He also noted that safety at stadiums has been a much bigger problem at soccer stadiums in the United Kingdom and Europe, where fans have died after being pressed into railings and gates in riot-like situations.

The worst occurred in Liverpool in 1989 when 96 fans were killed during a match when police opened a gate to relieve a congested area, forcing people into an overcrowded pen. That led to prosecutions of stadium officials and some police.

In the United States, stadiums are larger, have better exits and entrances, as well as fewer general admission seating areas. When fans have assigned seats, that allows for better control of crowds, Adelman said.

Safety at U.S. stadiums, Adelman said "is actually really good."

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