Carl Horowitz

Amusement parks for more than a century have been part of our national identity. They're fun, romantic, and more than once have inspired great rock n' roll; think of the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen and Freddie Cannon. For a long time, Chuck Berry ran his own park.

Such thoughts seem to recur around this time of year, as amusement parks from coast to coast open their gates. By summer's end, tens of millions of American adults, teens and kids will have had a great time. Cool fun translates into cold cash, and not just in the U.S. Annual amusement/water park revenues worldwide now exceed $20 billion.

But fun can come at a high price. Each year in America alone, notes the nonprofit group Safe Kids Worldwide, more than 8,000 children ages 14 and under are treated in emergency rooms for injuries involving thrill rides (including slides and inflatable devices) at amusement parks and traveling carnivals. "Kiddie rides" -- those designed for persons ages 4 and under -- account for nearly a quarter of all child injuries. An average of four to five kids die annually.

Adults are hardly immune from danger. In 2001, a 28-year-old woman was found dead, slumped over from an aneurysm, when her train arrived at the end of its run on "Goliath," a 255-foot-high, 85 miles-per-hour roller coaster ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern California.

Nobody wants such tragedies to happen. But it's a fact of life that dangerous rides, particularly "hyper-coasters" such as Goliath, are far riskier than your average ferris wheel or merry-go-round. And participants are fully aware of that. That's why the most extreme amusement park rides are among the most popular. At Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, located along Lake Erie, peak-season waiting times for two recent stomach-churning creations, "Millennium Force" and "Top Thrill Dragster," are about one to two hours.

The newer rides are designed to put the fear of God in those willing to lock in and let it rip. In the early 90s, roller coasters averaged about 55 miles per hour. Today, the figure is at least 70 MPH, with certain rides going a lot higher. One of them, "Kingda Ka," at New Jersey's Six Flags Great Adventure, features a hydraulic launch propelling the train out of the gate at 128 MPH. What's more, whips and swirls are more sudden. Many rides now inflict a g-force higher than what astronauts face at lift-off.

As a result, head injuries are becoming more common. Several years ago the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) issued a report revealing an upswing in ride-related brain damage since 1994.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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