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How Safe Are Those Theme Park Rides

Upside Down Roller Coaster - Austin Kirk(Image Via Flickr – Upside Down Roller Coaster)

There is nothing wrong with a healthy fear. That is, until you are dragging an eight-year-old boy on a roller coaster that his preschooler sister is excited to ride.

A lot of anxiety (and a wee bit of resentment) can take the thrills out of a ride. Even after explaining the fact that we would never encourage anyone to do something that might harm them, especially our own children, my son insisted the kid-friendly ride was a deathtrap.

This blip in our trip made me wonder…how safe are those theme park rides?

Earlier this month, a man lost his fingertips on Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. According to reports, he was holding onto the outside of the boat despite instructions to keep all hands, arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. Four people were injured on the Ninja ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain, after a fallen tree branch derailed the car. Last year, a 52-year-old woman was killed after being thrown from the Texas Giant roller coaster in Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) states that the likelihood of being injured seriously enough to require overnight hospitalization for treatment is 1 in 24 million according to their 2011 study. The chance of being fatally injured is 1 in 750 million. (Based on an average of five rides per guest.)

However, regulation for amusement park rides is best described as “fragmentary.” There is no federal agency responsible for amusement park safety. Each state is left to its own devices: state and local government, insurance companies, and private safety firms hired at park discretion are the typical standards for involvement.

Seventeen states have no state agency for overseeing or enforcing safety per a report via MSNBC, but the IAAPA claims that only six states (Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah) don’t have state oversight.

In the case of Texas, the Insurance Department is responsible for setting regulations for amusement park rides. The department released this statement in the wake of the death on the Six Flags ride

“Recognition by the Department that the amusement ride has satisfied these standards is not an endorsement by the Department or a statement regarding the safe operation of the amusement ride.”

Most standards are defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The park’s insurance company hires an inspector from the ASTM to ensure the standards for the Committee F24 on Amusement Rides and Devices. Note that the involvement of American Society for Testing and Materials is voluntary.

It’s debatable as to whether or not a federal agency would increase safety, but its worth noting in the case of the death on the New Texas Giant at Six Flags…the lack of government involvement leads the investigation to be done by Six Flags. Yes, the park will be in charge of deciding whether or not it was at fault.

As of December 2013, eight states do not require permits or inspections for amusement park rides, per NBC News: Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The Amusement Safety Organization has collected reports of injuries for 2013. Below are the top 10 reported cases of injury at theme parks in America for 2013. *Most injuries range from back, neck, shoulder or leg issues along with black outs.*

  1. Six Flags Magic Mountain – 269 injuries
  2. Knotts Berry Farm – 138 injuries
  3. The Big Apple, New York New York coaster in Las Vegas – 120 injuries
  4. Six Flags Texas – 104 injuries (44 of those were neck/back injuries and 1 death on the New Big Texas coaster)
  5. Tie: Six Flags New England – 92 injuries and Cedar Point – 92 injuries
  6. Carowinds – 79 injuries
  7. Disneyland – 77 injuries (54 of which come from the Indiana Jones Adventure ride)
  8. Tie: Six Flags Over Georgia – 75 injuries and Kings Dominion – 75 injuries
  9. Six Flags Great Adventure – 73
  10. Six Flags Great America – 71

In total, Six Flags collective theme parks saw 927 injuries in 10 of its parks in 2013. In comparison, in all 6 Disney parks located in America, 234 injuries were reported which is less than Six Flags’ report for Magic Mountain alone.

So, are those rides “safe“? It’s a matter of opinion. Accidents and things like slipping (which accounted for 5 of Disneyland’s injuries on Splash Mountain) could happen while getting into your own car. What might be more concerning is the lack of accountability.