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White Knuckles Are the Worst of It

2003 studies confirm roller coaster and amusement park safety

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The amusement industry is caught in a bizarre marketing and image dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to attract adrenaline junkies to ride the latest, greatest, biggest, meanest thrill rides at its theme parks and amusement parks. With names like "Flight of Fear," "Mind Eraser," and "Lethal Weapon," parks brazenly position its marquee roller coasters as extreme adventures that invoke terror and dread. On the other hand, the industry wants to reassure park-goers that despite the wild names--not to mention the mega-heights and -speeds--thrill rides are actually quite safe and innocuous.

Bombarded by a rising tide of negative media reports, claims linking thrill rides to brain injuries, a congressional move to regulate amusement parks, and other attacks against the industry, Six Flags fired back in 2003 by releasing the results of two scientific studies. The bottom line: Theme parks and amusement parks in general, and roller coasters in particular, are remarkably safe.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, a scientific engineering research firm, conducted the independent studies, which Six Flags commissioned. A panel of experts, including doctors, engineers, NASA astronauts, and industry reps helped present and interpret the studies' findings at a Washington, D.C. press conference. Among the studies' highlights:

Amusement parks and theme parks are safer than other leisure activities
Because roller coaster and ride accidents play into our worst fears (which, as the coasters' names attest, are part of their appeal), the media tends to sensationalize them. Like airline disasters, however, the hype doesn't square with the facts.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions estimates that 319 million people visited parks in 2001. According to the association, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 134 park guests required hospitalization in 2001 and that fatalities related to amusement rides average two per year.

  • Extrapolating these numbers, riders have a 1 in 24 million chance of serious injury and a more than 1 in one-and-a-half billion chance of being fatally injured.
  • According to the studies, the injury rate for children's wagons, golf, and folding lawn chairs are higher than amusement rides.
  • The report also says that injury risk rates at amusement parks held steady from 1997 to 2001 and decreased over the last two years.

There is no research linking roller coasters and brain injuries
Compared to the sustained forces astronauts or fighter pilots experience, the G-forces coasters exert are brief. While coaster heights and speeds have been rising, rates of acceleration and G-forces have remained relatively constant and within tolerable levels.

  • According to the studies, being hit with a pillow or falling on an exercise mat can cause much higher g-forces than a roller coaster.
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