Safety concerns rise with zipline popularity
— -- The sport of sailing through the air while tethered to a steel cable has soared in popularity the past few years, attracting millions of Tarzan wannabes. But the March death of a Texas cruise passenger on a Gumbalimba Park zipline canopy tour in Roatan, Honduras — local news reports said she fell nearly 65 feet when a cable snapped — has raised concerns about safety in an unregulated industry.
"It's been a feeding frenzy," says Darren Hreniuk, who says his Original Canopy Tour launched the craze in Costa Rica in 1997, and who started his own U.S. franchise business in April. He estimates that at least 400 commercial zipline operations have opened worldwide, including about 175 in Costa Rica alone, over the past decade.
In the USA, where shorter ziplines have been used as part of educational and team-building "challenge courses" since the 1960s, some newer operations are considered amusement rides and inspected by state agencies. But most commercial ventures are "flying under the radar, and it's very difficult for consumers to sort their way through the conflicting messages," says Sylvia Dresser of the Illinois-based Association for Challenge Course Technology.
Both her trade group and a competitor, the Professional Ropes Course Association, are working to update operational and safety standards specific to the zipline/canopy tour industry. But with a few exceptions — including the deaths of a 17-year-old at a church camp in North Carolina in 2006 and a 32-year-old man at a training institute in Nevada in 2007 — serious accidents in the USA remain rare, says Steve Gustafson of Experience Based Learning, a Rockford, Ill., company that designs commercial canopy tours.
Some things to remember before you make like a bird:
•Most zipline operations allow participants between about 70 and 270 pounds and require sturdy, closed-toe shoes. Hair and clothing should be kept secured and away from the pulleys attaching harnesses to cables.
•Expect a thorough briefing with details on staff training and equipment inspections.