The Cyclone Roller Coaster in Coney Island on opening day. (Photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle)
The term “roller-coaster ride” is often a metaphor for something unstable, but considering the speeds, heights, and G-forces your typical roller coasters can reach, it’s a marvel how reliable they are.
Still, when things go wrong, they go wrong in the boldfaced-headline kind of way. Nobody was injured when the 88-year-old Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island stalled during its first run of the season over the weekend, but the sight of people having to gingerly make their way down from almost 100 feet above can still get the imagination racing about what can go wrong.
Are roller coasters and other theme park rides safe? The short answer is that, yes, taking into consideration the number of deaths and serious injuries, plus the opinions of safety experts, they appear to be quite safe. The long answer is that putting that safety into numbers is an inexact science with this industry, and as with any kind of risk, bad things can happen.
We’ve come a long way since the old Action Park in New Jersey — also known as “Class-Action Park” — which reportedly had rides so dangerous that it had to buy extra ambulances to keep up with demand. (In fact, a new-and-safety-improved Action Park just reopened, nearly 20 years after the original closed.) When a death happens aboard a roller coaster, as happened in 2013 to one woman, it’s extremely rare. The more likely scenario is that you’ll be stuck for a few hours on a ride, waiting to be helped down.
The trick is that no single regulatory body tracks nationwide amusement-park deaths — at least not “fixed-site” amusement parks, such as Six Flags or Disney. The Consumer Product Safety Commission did that until 2005, but now it only tracks injuries at temporary parks, such as state fairs. From 1990 to 2004, the CPSC reported 52 amusement-park ride deaths.
The closest thing we have to a Holy Grail on U.S. amusement park casualty statistics comes from an amusement park trade group: the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Using info gathered by the National Safety Council, the report estimates that in 2011, a total of 1,415 injuries occurred on an estimated 1.7 billion amusement park rides. The number of deaths wasn’t reported. If you trust those numbers, that means the odds of being seriously injured at a fixed-site amusement park are 1 in 24 million.
A revised version of the study finds that in 2013, the number of rider injuries dipped to 1,221. An estimated 40.5 percent of injuries were related to roller coasters, up from 38.2 percent in 2012.
Roller coaster (Photo: Thinkstock)
“Rides undergo multiple layers of inspection,” IAAPA Executive Vice President Susan Mosedale told Yahoo Travel in an email. “The parks inspect rides for safety each day before any guest steps on board. Those inspections typically involve mechanical, electrical, and operational inspections. Rides are also inspected in accordance with the guidelines outlined by the attraction manufacturer.”
It might take a leap of faith to believe a trade group’s data, but independent safety experts generally agree with these findings.
“If you look at statistics, they’re relatively safe. The difference is, if you’re the one involved in an accident, the statistics don’t mean a lot to you,” William Avery, a safety consultant who specializes in amusement parks, told Yahoo Travel. “But if you look at the sheer ridership vs. frequency and the severity of incidents, the risk is low.”
Cyclone Roller Coaster at Coney Island (Photo: ThinkStock)
If you’re wondering whether old, wooden roller coasters such as the Cyclone are any more dangerous than today’s steel speed demons, there probably isn’t much, if any, difference, safety expert Randy King told Yahoo Travel. “What happens is they replace the wood on the ride every year,” King said. “They do maintenance on it during inspection. Most operators routinely have to do this.”
King also pointed out that the Cyclone’s stall happened during its initial ascent, which isn’t uncommon, and there are safeguards put in place to keep the cars from backsliding into the station. “It’s not something you want to happen,” he said. “But if a ride is gonna stop somewhere, that’s the best place, other than where you load or unload.”
A good snapshot of the severity of amusement park injuries can be found in a report by the Los Angeles Times. The paper tracked statistics compiled from 2007 to 2012 through the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees theme-park safety in California. Few of the injuries reported can be considered scary or catastrophic.
Of the 2,089 injury reports filed over that period, 18 percent cited motion sickness, 16 percent cited back or neck pain, and 12 percent cited head injuries. About one in eight reports involved riders who were hurt while getting on or off the attraction.
Three people reportedly died at theme parks during that time, but all of the deaths could be attributed to serious pre-existing conditions. In fact, 20 percent of the injuries related to such conditions.
The larger reports don’t account for such conditions, so it’s hard to tell how many of the injuries nationwide are a park’s or manufacturer’s fault, and how many can be traced to the customer’s risk factor. And that’s if the customer even knew about the condition.
"The average person in relatively decent health is probably OK,” Avery said. “There is a percentage of the population who have issues not even known to them that aren’t realized until after the roller coaster, like osteoporosis or spinal curvature. You can’t blame it on the patron or the operator.”
The height or weight of the rider can play a role in the risk, Avery said. One example could be the roller-coaster death of one patron in 2013 at Six Flags Over Texas — the second rider fatality in Six Flags’ history. Rose Esparza, a large woman, was ejected from her seat on the Giant and fell to her death. One Six Flags employee testified that her lap bar wasn’t properly secured.
The ride has since reopened with a seat belt and extra padding on the lap bar. There’s also a test seat that riders can try before they go aboard.
A good way to stay safe before going on a ride is to observe its requirements and warnings. The “you-must-be-this (blank)” measurements are determined by a ride’s manufacturer, and they’re usually a good indicator of who should and shouldn’t get on a ride. Also, the more you know about your health and any underlying issues, the more informed a decision you can make about how risky that coaster ride really is.
Below is a sampling of amusement-park incidents, deadly or non-deadly, in recent years:
Nov. 1, 2014: Disney World’s Seven Dwarf Mine Train catches fire while making a run. The passengers were evacuated and no injuries were reported.
The Colossus roller coaster (Photo: Facebook)
September 8, 2014: The wooden Colossus coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., partially caught fire and collapsed, with no riders aboard. No one was injured. The Colossus had been closed for three weeks for renovations.
The Ninja roller coaster (Photo: Facebook)
July 7, 2014: The Ninja roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain was derailed when it struck a fallen tree branch and dangled from its track precariously until all 22 passengers were rescued about three hours later. No one was killed, and two injured people were taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure.
Oct. 24, 2013: At the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, five people were injured while leaving a ride called the Vortex. The ride unexpectedly snapped into motion, dropping the riders about 20 feet onto a metal floor. An investigation found that the ride’s safety mechanism had been disabled. The ride’s owner and operator were arrested.
The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (Photo: Maliboy/Flickr)
October 10, 2013: The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster at Universal Orlando stalled in a vertical position, leaving 12 people stranded for almost three hours. No one was hurt. The park blamed it on a “glitch.”
The Texas Giant Roller coaster in Six Flags Texas (Photo: Getty Images News)
July 19, 2013: A woman died while riding the Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington when she fell out of her seat while riding with her daughter and son-in-law. The ride had opened in 1990, and two years before the accident it had undergone a $10 million renovation that made it higher and faster. The amusement park and ride manufacturer each blamed each other for the accident. After remaining closed for several months, the ride reopened with added seat belts.
The WindSeeker (Photo: Facebook)
2012: The WindSeeker ride at Knott’s Berry Farm in Los Angeles broke down twice, leaving riders stranded 300 feet high — once for nearly four hours. Nobody was injured, and a frozen brake was blamed in one of the incidents. The ride has since been taken down and shipped to the Worlds of Fun Park in Kansas City, Mo.
Ride of Steel (Photo: Oliver Mallich/Flickr)
July 8, 2011: An Army veteran who lost both his legs fighting in Iraq and was not wearing his prostheses was killed after being thrown from the Ride of Steel roller coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park Resort near Buffalo, N.Y. No charges were filed against the park.
The Xcelerator (Photo: Oliver Mallich/Flickr)
Sept. 16, 2009: Two people were injured riding the Xcelerator roller coaster at Knott’s Berry Farm — one of them a 12-year-old boy whose leg was cut — when a launch cable snapped and cut the car in half. The park agreed on a settlement with the boy.