Are Roller Coasters Safe?

ByABC News

Aug. 1, 2001 -- On the first plunge, riders on Six Flags' Goliath are dropped 120 feet into a mist-filled tunnel, then fly out and climb slowly up a banked 200-foot high turn. As they hit the air, negative G-forces induce a few seconds of a sense of floating.

Then riders whirl through a quick set of curves that drop finally into three spirals. The ride reaches speeds up to 85 miles per hour and lasts about three minutes.

Some people don't think this is safe.

Several studies have documented neurological injuries, mainly sudbural hematomas or brain bleeding, occurring in riders of coasters. None of the studies has concluded that the rides cause subdural hematomas, but some neurologists warn that the incredible G- forces [force of gravity, which changes with inertia and momentum on a roller coaster and in space] and speeds of the new coasters may cause this brain bleeding to occur.

To top it off, federal regulation by the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission of coasters ended in 1981, before the impressive new coasters were built.

Newer, Faster and Linear

Last month, a 28-year-old woman died after riding the Goliath at a Six Flags in Valencia, Calif. The Los Angeles coroner's office said Monday she died from a brain aneurysm.

The office, in a statement, said the cause could not be linked directly to the ride. There is some evidence that the woman had previous vascular problems. Most parks advise people with stroke history or high blood pressure not to ride the new super coasters.

"The roller coaster did not cause the aneurysm to form butthe stress and strain of the ride probably was a factor" incausing the fragile, blister-like flaw in a brain artery to burst,Scott Carrier, spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner, said in a written statement.

"Although it is rare for people to develop subdural hematomas after riding roller coasters, it can happen," said neurologist Toshio Fukutake of Chiba University School of Medicine in Japan.

Fukutake is the author of a study published last year by the American Academy of Neurology. It looked at several cases of subdural hematomas occurring in people who rode several roller coasters in one day at a theme park in Japan.

Still, the industry insists that the newer, faster roller coasters are safe and sound, even without federal regulation.

"With 320 million visitors to parks every year, and 3 billion rides given, you can expect to have a few accidents," said Brett Lovejoy, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

At the moment, there is no federal oversight of theme parks, so there is no way to investigate accidents or share information about malfunctions in theme parks throughout the country, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Concern over this fact rose this week after dozens of people were injured Monday night at an amusement park in northern Michigan when The Chaos, a large spinning wheel, fell from the spindle that kept it up. Riders were trapped in cars for up to four hours, and 31 people were treated or examined at hospitals. All but two have been released.

"It seems as if the industry is testing the limits of technology and human endurance with every new ride," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in a statement posted on his Web site. He has been pushing legislation to return jurisdiction over theme parks to the CPSC.

Gone Are the Days of Simple Loops

From 1987 to 1999, there were 49 documented fatalities in U.S. amusement parks, according to the CPSC.

In 1981, when coasters were regulated by the CPSC, they may have done loops, but none shot out of the gate using linear induction motors. The older models didn't have several inversions, they weren't over 300 feet tall, and they didn't near 93 mph. According to the CPSC, the number of injuries severe enough to send victims to the emergency room leaped from 2,400 in 1994 to 4,500 in 1998.

A total of 42 states currently adhere to regular inspections. The other states either don't have amusement parks (North Dakota and Montana) or rely on self-regulated inspections or local municipalities.

"The industry constantly performs tests and studies to see how a rider will experience a technology," said Susie Storey, spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "As an industry we are already highly regulated and we see federal regulation as an added layer of bureaucracy that would not benefit anyone."

The federal oversight issue applies only to amusement and theme parks in fixed locations. The CPSC has jurisdiction over traveling carnivals, so mechanical problems at one carnival can be quickly reported to operators elsewhere.

Most Popular Attraction

Markey says the increasing number of new coasters that reach phenomenal speeds and subject riders to G-forces of up to 5 means there needs to be federal oversight.

"Some of these rides now reach speeds of 100 mile per hour and forces greater than astronauts are trained to endure on the space shuttle," Markey said.

"As these rides get higher, faster, and more technologically sophisticated, the potential for unforeseen catastrophe rises as well. We need to ensure that our capacity to protect against unreasonable risks is not outstripped by our desire to experience new thrills," he said.

In fact, coaster enthusiasts say, the G-forces of some coasters (up to about 5) are only felt for a few seconds. And part of the fun, they say, is the G-force, negative and positive.

"It's the air time — the negative gravity you feel when you are lifted off your seat and you feel the action all the way through the ride that makes for a great coaster," said Bill Linkenheimer, president of the group American Coaster Enthusiast. "I'm not at all concerned about safety."

Last year, more than 50 roller coasters opened worldwide.

"They are definitely one of the most popular attractions," said Storey.

But are they safe?

"Visiting a park is one of the safest thing we can do," Storey said."For over 20 years safety has been the No. 1 priority with us and people keep coming because they know they are going to have a safe and happy time."

ABCNEWS' Lisa Stark contributed to this report.

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