"Amusement Parks: Nobody Rides for Free"

Posted: Apr 07, 2007 12:01 AM
"Amusement Parks: Nobody Rides for Free"

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.

So why would customers stand in a queue for such rides? Probably for the same reason why they can't get enough of horror-thriller films like "The Ring," "Dawn of the Dead" and "Dead Silence." They want to court danger, to feel as though they are cheating death. As young Winston Churchill famously observed, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at and missed."

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley hypothesizes that such cravings are the mark of a "Type-T" personality. Such people, especially under-25 males among them, are cognitively wired for danger, possessed to indulge in extreme sports, "Jackass"-style stunts, high-risk investments, and terror-inducing amusement park rides. These are the thrill-seekers, the risk-takers, and to a large extent they define the American character.

But that's not to say that large-scale amusement parks aren't catching on elsewhere. In the quarter ending December 31, 2006, Euro Disney theme park revenues were up 10% over the previous year. Disneyland Resort Paris opened back in 1992, and, to the chagrin of France's chattering class, is still going strong. To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the park has prepared two new rides, "Cars Race Rally" and "Crush's Coaster." Meanwhile, in the Asian Pacific region, amusement park revenues will reach $8.2 billion by 2010, a nearly 6% annual increase, projects Pricewaterhouse Coopers, LLP.

Type-T behavior knows no borders. And it can't be abolished. But as death and injury have occurred from certain rides, expensive lawsuits can be the result. At Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, one of the early hyper-coasters, "Rattler," features an initial drop of 166 feet and a g-force of 5. In 1998, nearly 30 plaintiffs were awarded a $3.5 million class-action settlement for neck, back and other injuries.

Plaintiffs' attorneys know their targets often have deep pockets. As one Houston lawyer who won a $2.5 million jury verdict for a child paralyzed by a roller coaster puts it: "It's cheaper to pay some nominal settlement than re-engineer a ride." Wayne Pierce, a longtime safety expert from the industry's side of the fence, agrees. "Do not underestimate motivated plaintiffs' lawyers," he says. "If they can bring down big asbestos and big tobacco, our industry would be relatively easy to target."

Now far be it for anyone to breach someone's right to sue negligent amusement park owner-operators. Every ride, even the "safe" ones, is a potential death trap if not built, maintained and operated properly. There can be no cutting corners on safety.

But liability cuts both ways. Recent evidence -- beyond any industry-sponsored studies -- indicates customers very often are at fault. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services concluded that rider error accounted for around three-fourths of amusement park ride injuries over a three-year period. The Ohio Department of Agriculture reported that more than 80% of amusement ride injuries over the previous four years had been caused by human error or horseplay unrelated to the condition or the operation of the ride. And the Michigan Department of Consumer Industry Services found that all but one of 47 injuries had been the result of aberrant rider behavior.

Yet when amusement park owners are ordered to pay damages, whether or not the award accurately reflects liability, their insurance premiums rise. Larger theme parks can absorb these losses by raising the cost of admissions. But smaller parks might not be so fortunate.

David Mandt, spokesperson for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group, knows that customers have to feel confident about their safety. Still, customers, like management, have to be safety-conscious, a view taken by a recent federal study.

In February 2005, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates portable carnival-style rides, released a report, Human Factors Review of Restraint Failures on Mobile Amusement Rides. Examining data on thousands of injuries occurring during 1997-2003, the CPSC concluded that mechanical failure and rider tampering each have been significant factors. The report called for mandatory retrofits of dangerous rides with secondary restraints, at the same time admitting, "It is unclear...how effective these measures would have been at preventing the incidents on records."

It's worth noting that the incidence of ride injuries has been falling. In 2005, there were 5.2 injuries per million attendees on fixed-site rides, down from 7.0 in 2003, reported the National Safety Council in a study for the IAAPA. Mandt points out that most of today's rides already have back-up restraints, a fact suggesting that further improvement lies to a large extent in other areas. To make parks safer and more lawsuit-proof, lawmakers should advocate the following measures.

First, states should not only mandate pre-accident safety inspections of each ride (as most now do), but also require that all parks receive safety certification from AIMS (Amusement Industry Manufacturers & Suppliers International) or NAARSO (National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials). Such an approach would protect amusement park management from dubious or excessive lawsuits.

Second, allow only adults to operate dangerous rides. At present, nearly three dozen states permit minors to do this. The U.S. Department of Labor has ruled such apparatus does not meet the definition of "hazardous machinery" under child labor rules. Thus, a teen or even an adolescent legally may hoist passengers more than 200 feet in the air and then suddenly drop them. Something is wrong with this picture.

Third, require ride operators to demonstrate English-language proficiency. The National Council of La Raza, MALDEF and other Hispanic "civil-rights" groups will fight such a requirement tooth and nail, but that's too bad. If employees are to communicate an emergency situation to riders and bystanders, they must speak and comprehend a common language. In this country, that means English.

Fourth, prohibit employees from operating rides if they are intoxicated in any way. Federal law imposes criminal penalties upon commercial airline pilots who test positive for drugs or alcohol prior to flight. While criminal sanctions would be too extreme to apply to ride operators, simple prohibition would not.

Ultimately, at least where children are concerned, moms and dads are the best sources of regulation. Parents should supervise their kids getting on and off all rides, and also teach by example. Safe Kids Worldwide has found that children are more likely to follow safety rules in a variety of activities (e.g., buckling seat belts) when they see their parents doing so. All adults contemplating riding a hyper-coaster, parents or not, should get a medical checkup beforehand.

Action on these fronts would go a long way in ensuring amusement parks are safe to visit and profitable to operate.