Video: Roller coaster safety

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/21/2004 4:51:00 PM ET 2004-07-21T20:51:00

They are a staple of summer fun from coast to coast, especially when the heat is on, as it is now in much of the country.

Amusement parks with high-flying roller coasters and drenching water rides will attract millions of Americans over the next few months.

Each year, several of the nation’s 600 theme parks unveil a new ride, always promising bigger, faster, taller and better. It’s an effort to keep the crowds coming, to stay ahead of the competition and to give the park patrons a more thrilling experience.

But on occasion, it turns into something more than that.

Last month, A Massachusetts man died after being thrown from a roller coaster at the Six Flags New England Park. A state investigation revealed the man was not properly secured in his seat by a park attendant. There were no apparent mechanical defects.

Just last week, the nation’s largest roller coaster at the Cedar Point park in Ohio was closed for several days after people were hurt by flying debris from a fraying cable.

Getting more than a thrill
Many people come to the park specifically for these “take your breath away” rides. But is the patron’s need for speed and the parks’ desire to satisfy its customers pushing the envelope on safety? 

Harold Hudson says absolutely not.  He’s an electrical engineer who designed rides for more than 20 years. Now, he’s a consultant to some of the biggest amusement parks in the country, including Disney, Six Flags and Busch Gardens.

“Technology’s allowed the designers to build more exciting rides, more thrilling rides and more desirable rides for that matter for the public, and in doing so, technology has also allowed them to build safer rides through computer controls and monitoring every aspect of a ride,” he said.

Hudson said the risk has actually decreased, because those computers eliminate the possibility of human error.

Demand for more safety information
Kathy Fackler would like to know that with more certainty. Her son David lost part of his foot in a roller-coaster accident he was five years old. She’s since become an advocate for amusement ride safety, and runs the website www.saferparks.org. 

Fackler says if the rides are really that safe, why not publish that information. She is promoting the idea of a national registry detailing reports on what rides have had problems and how the various ride manufacturers stack up in terms of safety.

“There should be public accountability. Anytime you’ve got, particularly with the large operators, 10 million people going through your rides every year, then those paying customers ought to have a way to find out the safety records of those rides,” Facker said.

There are no federal inspections of theme park rides. The Consumer Product Safety Commission does inspect the rides at traveling carnivals, but so-called fixed rides are exempt.

The amusement parks inspect their own rides on a daily basis and also make decisions on the maintenance of the rides. 

Sandra Daniels, who works at the Six Flags Over Texas park outside Dallas, said the company may be in the business of fun, but it’s strictly business on the issue of safety.

“You, as a mom, are more likely to get hurt riding a bike, skateboarding, skating, rollerblading, even walking from your car to a theme park than you are once you’re inside a theme park  or once you’re on one of our rides,” Daniels said.

While the accidents at theme parks always get a lot of coverage, government figures indicate there are an average of  two deaths a year in amusement parks for more than 300 million people who visit them.

According to numbers released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are several thousand minor injuries at the parks each year, fewer than those reported by people hurt while involved in activities considered very safe, including fishing and golf.

Janet Shamlian is an NBC News correspondent based in Dallas.

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