Bigger, taller, faster -- riskier?

Rides: Accidents that killed four in a week raise questions about whether the thrill is worth the risk.

September 01, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

For amusement park operators, last week was the ride from hell.

From Sunday through Saturday, four people were killed and dozens were injured or terrified in six unrelated ride accidents from California to New Jersey.

Federal safety authorities say six people have died this year in amusement park ride accidents, the highest for any year going back to 1987. But investigators have reported no clear pattern to the accidents, and federal safety officials concede the numbers might simply be climbing along with rising park attendance.

Joel Cliff, a spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, says park attendance -- at 300 million last year -- has risen almost 19 percent since 1990.

The rides, he said, remain as safe as humans and modern technology can make them.

Fatal accidents remain exceedingly rare, and the industry believes the risks to riders remain minuscule.

"While there have been a number oftragic incidents in the last several days, I believe they are coincidences," Cliff said.

"They're tragic, but coincidences nonetheless."

Still, the headlines and the TV news clips were unsettling.

On Sunday, Aug. 22, a 12-year-old boy slipped out of his harness and fell to his death from the Drop Zone "free-fall" ride at the Great America park in Santa Clara, Calif.

On Monday, a man was killed in a fall after he wriggled partway out of his restraints on the Shockwave, a stand-up roller coaster at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va.

On Wednesday, 28 people on the Boomerang roller coaster at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, Calif., were suspended 75 feet in the air -- some of them upside down -- for as long as 3 1/2 hours after a mechanical failure stopped their ride in mid-run.

None was seriously hurt.

On Saturday, a 39-year-old woman and her 8-year-old daughter were killed when they were ejected from Wild Wonder coaster ride at Gillian's Wonderland Pier in Ocean City, N.J.

A mechanical failure caused their car to slide backward on a 30-foot ascent and crash into another car.

The fatal accidents in August followed two others this year.

In March, a 28-year-old woman drowned when her raft overturned in the Roaring Rapids ride at Six Flags Over Texas park in Arlington, Texas.

And in June, a 17-year-old girl was killed and eight other people were injured when their car left the track on the Himalaya ride at Coney Island, N.Y.

Far above average

The six fatalities are three times the annual average since 1987. There were no deaths in 1990 or 1992.

In a July 1999 tally, compiled before the four August fatalities, the Consumer Products Safety Commission reported 28 fatalities since 1987 among patrons at fixed-site amusement parks, for an average of 2.1 a year.

(Fatalities on mobile rides -- the kind seen at carnivals and Maryland's State Fair -- are calculated separately. They have ranged from none to two a year, with no upward trend, according to CPSC figures.)

Roller coasters accounted for the largest number of deaths at fixed-site amusement parks -- 10.

Mechanical, operator failure

CPSC investigations of 65 ride accidents found that mechanical failures were the cause of more than half (34).

Operators were faulted in seven accidents for improperly maintaining the equipment or intentionally overriding safety gear.

The increasing complexity and violence -- Cliff prefers "intensity" -- of the new rides might seem to make them more vulnerable to calamity.

Cliff agrees that the amusement industry is in a period of "keen competition with regard to bigger, taller, faster." But he adds the technology that makes such rides possible -- computer-aided design, testing and operations -- also makes them safer.

And at least three of this year's fatalities occurred on an old-style water ride and a more sedate "family" coaster.

Rider stupidity plays a role, too.

In seven of the 65 cases, investigators found riders who intentionally stood up or rocked their cars or held children above the safety restraints.

One person pushed a ride's start button while other passengers were still getting out.

Warnings are ignored

Cliff said some people also ignore posted park warnings against cardiac or back patients or pregnant women taking the rides.

The overwhelming number of injuries at amusement parks are minor.

The CPSC estimates that 4,500 people were treated in emergency rooms for injuries at fixed-site theme parks in 1998, up from 2,400 in 1994. Only 36 -- fewer than 1 percent -- were hurt badly enough to require hospitalization.

As worrisome as the increased deaths and injuries are, they don't necessarily mean the rides are any riskier.

If total ridership has been climbing, "there might be no increased risk," says Ken Giles, a spokesman for the CPSC.

But Giles says the agency has been unable to determine the number of people boarding the rides. Without those figures, he can't say whether the risk to consumers is higher today.

Industry has estimates

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