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How many die on roller coasters? No one knows

The woman who suffered a fatal fall from a Texas roller coaster last week is the latest death associated with an amusement ride, but researchers say no one really knows how many people are hurt or killed on such attractions every year.

Rosy Ayala-Goana died Friday night when she fell from the Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas, which bills the 14-story, 4,900-foot ride as the world’s steepest wooden roller coaster.

Such deaths typically attract high-profile media coverage, but outside of news headlines, there’s no way to track deaths – or injuries, said Dr. Gary A. Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

“We don’t have a really good system for catching all of these,” said Smith, who published a study this year tracking kids younger than 18 who are hurt on roller coasters, carnivals and kiddie rides. “Many of these go unmonitored and unaddressed.”

About 4,400 children a year are hurt on such rides; that’s up to 20 kids a day in the peak season between May and September, Smith found. No similar study has been conducted to assess adult amusement park injuries, mostly because the research required a line-by-line review of data from U.S. emergency department reports.

“If we started looking, we would find similar numbers,” Smith said.

Smith’s data didn’t include amusement ride deaths, either, because the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System only includes injuries. There were 52 deaths tied to amusement rides logged between 1990 and 2004, according to a 2005 report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But the agency no longer tracks the data, so it’s up to websites like RideAccidents.com to post headlines detailing deaths and injuries reported in the media.

The problem, of course, is that without data on the frequency, site and cause of injuries and deaths, there’s no way to prevent them, Smith said. Lack of monitoring is exacerbated because there’s no state or federal agency responsible for enforcing amusement park safety. CPSC has no jurisdiction over so-called “fixed-site” amusement parks, the large theme parks. The agency only has authority over mobile amusement rides that travel from community to community.

In addition, 17 states have no agency responsible for inspecting amusement rides. Six Flags Over Texas will lead its own investigation into Ayala-Goana’s death in the absence of an outside authority.

Officials with the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions or IAAPA, note that about 297 million people, both adults and children, safely rode 1.7 billion rides in the U.S. in 2011. The chance of being seriously injured on a ride at a fixed-site park in the U.S. is about 1 in 24 million.

But Smith said that basic tracking should be a no-brainer in an industry that attracts so many with the lure of thrills. He’d like the CPSC to change the way amusement injuries are coded so that they categorize ride injuries separately from other park injuries so that

“We should have a better way to monitor these types of injuries so when we see a pattern, we can address them,” he said.

Related stories:

With no safety oversight, Six Flags will investigate coaster death itself

Woman falls to her death from Texas roller coaster

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