Is the rush worth the risk?

Roller coasters: Thorough inspections imperative, but nothing will rein in rides as fast as fear.

September 10, 1999

THE AIRLINE industry, the makers of Tylenol and Coca-Cola in Europe know about regaining public trust after their product causes someone to fall sick or die.

Amusement park executives are likely reaching for those names in their Rolodexes following a spate of recent deaths and injuries on amusement rides nationwide. The accidents have cast a harsh light on roller coasters and made many folks wonder if the rush is worth the risk.

Park operators will be sure to point out that roller coaster accidents are extremely rare, and they are; 1 in 450 million, by one estimate.

They're also bound to decry irresponsible customers, although not all the recent deaths -- including those of a mother and daughter thrown from a month-old ride in Ocean City, N.J. -- are believed due to rider negligence.

While park executives are making excuses, though, serious consideration ought to be given to a proposal by Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward J. Markey to revive the Consumer Product Safety Commission's oversight of fixed amusement rides. Congress voted 18 years ago to have the commission drop that responsibility, leaving inspections to the states.

The result: A hodge-podge of varying regulations from state to state. That doesn't make much sense. Frequent, thorough inspection of equipment is imperative, no matter where the loop-the-loops or corkscrews are located.

Beyond that, there's no greater force than economics to rein in sloppy amusement park operators. If people don't believe the rides are safe, they won't ride them. And the parks will lose money.

Park owners only have to ask the former operators of the fleeting bungee-jumps, popular only a few years ago, to find out how fast a novelty can fall if safety isn't guaranteed.

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