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Thrills or Chills? Roller Coaster Safety a Mystery

Roller coasters are a staple of summer, but thrill-seekers might not know that amusement park rides are subject to a patchwork of inconsistent rules.

When you’re stranded on a roller coaster for hours, as nearly two dozen people were Monday after a tree branch partly derailed the Ninja ride at California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, a few questions come to mind.

First, you want to know, “Is everybody OK?” In this case, four people were treated for minor injuries and released, park officials said.

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Beyond that, there are obvious questions about roller coaster accidents, injuries and deaths that can worry even the bravest thrill-seekers. Here are answers from top safety experts and researchers:

How often are people injured on amusement park rides? How often are they killed?

The short answer is, no one really knows. There’s no single state or federal agency responsible for enforcing amusement park standards, said Ken Martin, a Richmond, Virginia, safety consultant. “It’s just frustrating because everywhere you turn, it’s a different regulation,” Martin said.

Some 1,204 people were injured on rides at nearly 400 U.S. amusement parks in 2011, according to latest figures from a survey compiled by the industry trade group, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA. But less than half of the parks responded and those who did often provided incomplete data, the survey showed.

There were 52 deaths tied to amusement park rides between 1990 and 2004, according to a 2005 report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But the CPSC no longer tracks that data, so current figures aren't available, a spokesman said.

Amusement park rides must be regulated, right?

It depends. Portable rides like those that pop up during county fairs are regulated by the CPSC. But that agency has no jurisdiction over so-called “fixed-site” rides like those at the most popular amusement parks in the country. Oversight of those rides is left to a patchwork of state and local authorities, said Martin. In some states, the labor department is responsible; in others states, it’s local building inspectors.

So, how can I tell if a ride is safe? What can I do to protect my family?

Unless you’re a ride inspector, there’s no easy way to ensure safety, Martin said. “You have to look at a ride to see whether that’s something you want to do with your body,” he said.

What thrill-seekers can do, however, is make sure that they use the rides safely and appropriately. Most rides are targeted for children that weigh about 90 pounds and adults that weigh about 180 pounds, Martin said. If you’re much smaller or much larger than that, you should test the ride to make sure you can be properly restrained.

It also should go without saying that patrons should follow safety rules, use appropriate restraints and keep their limbs inside the car. When accidents do happen, they often occur because someone was horsing around, experts say.

Seriously, though, what’s the risk of something bad actually happening?

Pretty low, if you believe the IAAPA, the industry trade group. Officials there say that some 297 million people visit the nearly 400 amusement parks in the U.S. each year and take 1.7 billion safe rides. They figure that the chance of being seriously injured at a fixed-site park in the U.S. is about 1 in 24 million. Even if someone does get hurt, less than 5 percent of cases wind up in the hospital, the IAAPA said.