The Hartford Courant

Roller Coasters are (Relatively) Safe

by Howard Fienberg
August 31, 2001

Roller coasters always provide thrills and chills, but this summer we have seen some high-profile spills as well. The injury of 22 people on a roller coaster at Six Flags in Massachusetts earlier this month is but one of many incidents raising public concern about insufficient amusement park oversight. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), injuries from all amusement park rides rose from 7,700 in 1993 to 10,580 in 2000, a 37 percent increase. U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has been pushing the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act, complains that “we are living on borrowed time” because the CPSC is “forbidden by law from investigation.”

While the federal government oversees “mobile-site” rides (e.g. a traveling carnival), it does not regulate “fixed-site” amusement park rides (e.g. Six Flags or Disneyland). Of the injury estimates for 2000, 6,594 came on fixed-site rides, while only 3,985 were from mobile-site rides. But just because federal inspectors are not looking over our shoulder on Space Mountain, does that necessarily mean that no one else is either? According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), every ride is subject to either state or municipal regulation, as well as the intense scrutiny of private insurance companies.

Although the CPSC does not have regulatory power over fixed-site rides, it monitors injuries associated with them along with mobile ones. How does it get its information? The agency bases its estimates on injury data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance (NEIS) system, a network of 101 American hospitals. For many consumer products, this should allow for a reasonably representative sample. But the system may not be so useful in measuring a small industry like amusement parks, where 40 parks dominate as much as one-third of total park visits. Only two of the 101 hospitals in the system take patients from any of the nation’s top 40 parks. One of the two only accepts children. That might have something to do with the +/- 25 percent margin of error in the agency’s data. With most public opinion polls hovering the +/- 3 to 5 percent error range, the CPSC’s figures appear more like blind guesses than estimates.

But lets assume that the figures are accurate. Are you really taking your life in your hands when you board an amusement park ride? The rides hardly register as a blip on the CPSC’s radar screens compared to other recreational activities. Consider the agency’s injury data in 1997, when trampolines were associated with 82,722 injuries, swimming pools with 62,812 injuries and bicycles with a whopping 544,561 injuries.

There were approximately 317 million visits to fixed-site amusement parks in 2000. That puts the related injury rate at just over 2 per 100,000 visits.

So why does the minimal problem of amusement park ride accidents cause so much public panic? Probably because of our sense of personal control. At least while swimming in a pool or tooling around town on a bicycle, we have control over the “ride.” We can learn how to swim properly and ride our bikes in such a manner that we avoid tangling with speeding cars. However, on a roller coaster, we must strap ourselves in and turn control over to a complete stranger (often a carny resembling a refugee from a Scooby Doo haunted amusement park).

Like watching a horror movie, the ‘fear factor’ contributes mightily to our enjoyment of the ride. But in this we may just be deluding ourselves. While it is easy to lay blame on the ride operators, parks and government agencies responsible for regulating them, many injuries seem to result from customer violation of rules and regulations. Most rides have signs warning against rider high-jinks and warning off those customers with heart or back problems for a reason. In many cases, rides are as safe as the riders wish them to be.

Our chances of being in an auto accident while driving to the amusement park are far higher than any accident once we get there. Numerous levels of existing government oversight, in addition to the parks’ self-interest, keep rides quite safe.

Federal oversight did not prevent a 33 percent increase in the number of mobile-site accidents. So why federalize the fixed-site ones? Let us have our fun and let Congress stick to the amusement park they know best -- the one on Capitol Hill.

HOWARD FIENBERG is Research Analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

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