Roller coasters killing, injuring more in 2011 as thrill seekers want faster rides

Dave Masko's picture

EUGENE, Ore. – It’s called the “Son of Beast” roller coaster and its claim is to be “the tallest, fastest and only looping wooden coaster on the planet” as it sends riders down a 214-foot hill at more than 80 mph; meanwhile, more and more coaster deaths and injuries have occurred in 2011 while such reports are staying under the radar as the “fun” of roller coasters is marketed way more than the dangers, say experts.

“It was just a few years ago that the Son of Beast roller coaster at King’s Island outside Cincinnati, Ohio, injured 25 riders who were sent to hospital after the coaster made a sudden stop. Can you imagine the horror of these parents and kids having their summer ruined by such an accident,” explains Donald, a Eugene grandparent who looks into coaster accidents after two of his grandkids were injured in a local strip mall after a “Carney” ride went wrong. At the same time, national attention focused on roller coaster safety after “the July 8 death of 29-year-old Army Sgt. James Hackemer – who lost both of his legs in the Iraq war – after being ejected from the Ride of Steel roller coaster in New York State. Hackemer hit the front of a nearby car, then hit the track and was thrown forward into a grassy area near Route 77,” reported rideaccidents.com July 13 after a local police investigation.

Roller coaster rides getting bigger, faster and more dangerous, say experts

The sharp turns, ups and downs, and high speeds of today's roller coasters bring a lot of thrills, but they also killed a 46-year-old man who fell from a roller coaster and later died in Houston at the end of March, while a 3-year-old boy also died after falling out of a roller coaster April 2; while roller coasters injuries are in the thousands nationwide during the spring and summer amusement park seasons.

Such roller coaster injuries and even deaths are not uncommon, states the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Moreover, aamusement park rides may be the cause of unexplained head, neck and back injuries seen in accident and emergency department, doctors have warned. At the same time, it’s up to individual states and various U.S. government agencies to inspect and regulate “amusement rides” – such as those at theme parts or the carnival rides that visit local county fairs and festivals here in the Eugene area and throughout the country.

In turn, the Consumer Product Safety Commission states that it “doesn’t investigate the incidents” involving roller coaster deaths and injuries. Simply put, there’s no federal oversight on dangerous roller coasters.

“We’ve had lots of kids hurt when those Carney’s come to town. They set up the rides right here in the parking lot, but we’re seeing fewer parents allowing their kids to get on those rides because they’re not safe,” says Eugene local Brenda Hayes who sells home-made jams at a popular farmer’s market that’s near a strip mall where carnival rides are popular during the summer season.

Thousands injured each year on roller coaster rides

The Consumer Product Safety Commission notes “thousands are injured each year at fixed-ride and traveling ride sites across the U.S. each year, but there’s no hard facts on just how many people are killed or injured, said Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Robertson says 300 million people take more than 1.5 billion trips on fixed-site rides each year.

"The likelihood of being injured on a ride, injured enough to require a visit to an overnight hospital stay, is one in 10 million," Robertson said. "The chances of being fatally injured are one in 790 million."

While those are pretty good odds if you’re a roller coaster fan thinking of hitting the parks this spring and summer season, there’s some other factors to consider, says Bill Avery, president of Orlando-based Avery Safety Consulting.

“For one thing, people might feel banged-up after a ride, but shrug it off during their visits. They wake up the next morning, and they can't move, and they go to the ER. And they find out they have a broken neck," explained Avery, a former amusement park ride industry safety expert who often serves as an expert witness in lawsuits involving amusement park injuries.

Congress asks for federal oversight on roller coaster rides

"It is simply inexcusable that when a loved one dies or is seriously injured on these rides, there is no system in place to ensure that the ride is investigated, the causes determined, and the flaws fixed, not just on that ride, but on every similar ride in every other state," wrote U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in response to media queries about why he’s been pushing for federal oversight of fixed-site rides for years.

Meanwhile, congressional records and testimonies about roller coaster safety – that go back as far as the Sixties – point to lawmakers sharing stories from people in their states who write or call about roller coaster accidents causing “terrible injuries and deaths.”

Moreover, ongoing roller coaster investigations by the British government have examined “the root causes of injuries and deaths on amusement rides in England.”

Those studies found incidents occurred when G-force levels were within established limits of human tolerability.

"The G-forces were still important, but considered of secondary importance due to modifying factors related to the ergonomics of the passenger containment system as a whole," the British study reported.

Moreover, one of the leading British and world researchers in roller coaster “G-forces” noted his fears during a recent BBC interview.

“We’re concerned roller coaster G-forces will reach and exceed the body’s threshold of tolerance, giving rise to a wave of amusement park injuries each year,” stated Dr. Robert Braksiek, who also noted the British study of roller coaster incidents involved:

The study found that the majority of incidents involved:
-- During the past 10 years, there have been 15 reports in medical literature of life-threatening brain injuries caused by riding roller coasters.
-- Several of the authors of these reports have said giant roller coasters produce enough G-forces to cause brain injury.
-- Some rides, say British researchers, “reach G-forces exceeding those experienced by space shuttle astronauts.”

"As roller coasters continue to push the envelope of speed, otolaryngologists need to be aware of this new cause of barotrauma to the ear," says Dr. Kathleen L. Yaremchuk, Chair, Department of Otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital. "Based on our research, we recommend that passengers remain facing forward for the duration of the ride to not let the full impact of acceleration hit the ear,” added Yaremchuk in a recent report about roller coaster safety.

The Henry Ford Hospital study into roller coaster-induced ear barotrauma is centered on a 24-year-old male who experienced pain and fullness in his right ear about 36 hours after riding a roller coaster at a local amusement park, the report stated.

“As the ride began to accelerate, the patient's head was turned to the left to speak with his girlfriend, causing his right ear to sustain full impact of the forward throttle. The roller coaster he was riding reaches a maximum speed of 120 mph within 4 seconds. When examined by Henry Ford otolaryngologists, the patient's left ear was normal; however, the right ear canal was swollen and the ear drum inflamed,” the reported stated.

Upon further examination, Dr. Yaremchuk and co-author Samer Al-khudari, M.D., “estimated that the patient's right ear was exposed to about 0.6 PSI (pound per square inch, used to measure pressure) when the roller coaster accelerated. While not enough to perforate the ear drum, the pressure was enough to cause barotrauma to the ear.

External pressure or compression can cause inflammation in the ear, leading to increased swelling and redness. For example, approximately 0.62 PSI is required to cause capillary closure in arterioles (the small thin-walled arteries that end in capillaries) of human fingers.”

New faster, more dangerous roller coasters unveiled for 2011 season

The Busch Gardens Tampa Bay web site notes how the park “will introduce a new breed of speed that invites guests to celebrate the spirit of the cheetah. This new generation of thrills emerges from the crossroads where up-close animal encounters and awe inspiring rides come together.”

The Busch Gardens web site also notes that “the centerpiece of the new attraction is Cheetah Hunt, a Linear Synchronous Motor (LSM) Launch Coaster that uses the force of repelling magnets to launch riders from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds - not once, but three times.”

“Cheetah Hunt covers a lot of ground, setting a new distance record for Busch Gardens’ roller coasters at 4,429 feet of track. After leaving the Crown Colony Plaza area, it races across a portion of the Serengeti Plain, staying close to the ground to give guests the experience of a cheetah sprinting across the plains. Elements such as over-banked turns, air-time parabolas and a heart line roll inversion imitate the agile creature chasing its prey, leaping and pouncing into the Nairobi area, where the train twists through a rocky gorge that was formerly part of Rhino Rally. At the far end of this three-quarter-mile path, a third burst of speed rockets the train back across the plain toward the station in a thrill-ride experience unlike anything Busch Gardens guests have ever experienced,” Busch Gardens promotion states.

Moreover, the popular ultimate site roller coaster.com web points to those “must ride” attractions at amusement and theme parks that offer what kids want, and that’s roller coasters that are “big and fast, intimidating and scary.”

“The moment we begin the first descent our body fills with adrenaline creating a "thrill-seeker high,” the roller coaster web site promises, while adding “for thrill-seekers it's a love affair with the excitement a roller coaster offers.”

Image source of roller coaster: Wikipedia

Comments

Submitted by Eric G (not verified) on
This article is poorly researched and filled with incorrect facts. The number of incidents on roller coasters has always been very small, but IN FACT the number of incidents in recent years has declined. Roller coasters do not pose a risk to the public. The quotes about the dangers of the G-forces is nonsense. Roller coasters are engineered under modern ASTM standards and must pass accelerometer tests. The fact is a roller coaster is one of the safest forms of transportation. You're far more likely to be injured on the car ride to the amusement park. Another fact is that MOST roller coaster accidents are a result of rider error, meaning the rider was not following the posted safety rules or was goofing off. It's really a shame that writers like this need to attempt to create drama out of nothing. Unfortunately, you chose a poor topic to write on because there really is no safety story to write about when it comes to roller coasters.

Submitted by RideMan (not verified) on
This is, unfortunately, one of the most poorly written, ill-researched and badly presented articles on amusement ride safety I have seen in a very long time. It's lacking in specific direction, taking a shotgun approach to throwing out random facts and figures from every report given in the past five years. I suppose the overwhelming number of roller coasters operating in the State of Oregon (4) probably has something to do with that. Son of Beast injured 25 riders when it suffered a structural failure in 2006. Given the magnitude of the failure, the severity of the injuries (none was particularly serious) is on one hand surprising, and on the other hand a testament to the relative safety of roller coasters even when things go terribly wrong. That ride has since been repaired and modified, re-opened for a season or two, but has been closed for other reasons for the last two and a half years. When Sgt. Hackemer was thrown from Ride of Steel at Darien Lake, he was riding in a roller coaster designed to secure riders using a bar across their laps, a method which has proven to be quite effective. But having lost both legs in Iraq, Sgt. Hackemer had no lap by which to be secured in the train, and the Sheriff's investigation has already revealed that according to the posted ride rules, Hackemer should not have been on the ride. The full investigation into that incident is still underway, but it has already been revealed that no failure of the ride system has been identified. I think it interesting that the next section of this article mentions the death of Brian Greenhouse, who fell from the Hi Miler coaster in Houston, in a section referring to coasters getting "bigger, faster and more dangerous." In fact, the Hi Miler is about 50' tall, has a top speed of about 30 MPH, and while news reports following the incident referred to its "31-year history", it is mentioned in the past tense in an article that was published in 1973, meaning the ride is at least 38 years old. I haven't seen a final report on this particular incident because, contrary to the statement made in the article, because this is a portable coaster, it IS subject to the jurisdiction of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is presumably conducting an investigation into this incident. Indeed there is no Federal oversight of fixed-site rides, but almost every fixed-site amusement ride in the United States is governed by some local authority, and certainly is subject to scrutiny by the owner and his insurance underwriter, scrutiny which is usually more stringent than governmental inspections anyway. The fact is, the amusement industry as a whole is extremely safety conscious, and generally complies voluntarily (by law in some states) with standards developed by ASTM International which cover design, construction, and operation of amusement rides. The standards committee is made up of ride manufacturers, owner/operators, third party and government inspectors, and even concerned members of the general public (including myself). These standards include specific requirements that ride designs take into account biodynamic and ergonomic factors…which means that while the rides are getting taller and faster, the engineering is more precise, the construction is more tightly controlled, and the G-forces applied to the riders are now held to strict limits. This, combined with the attention paid to biodynamic, ergonomic and restraint factors...the very issues cited by the unidentified British research study described in the article...mean that these rides are in fact being held to an ever increasing safety standard. I'd say the rides are becoming "safer than ever" but the number of incidents compared to the number of rides given has been so vanishingly small that the safety improvements aren't going to appear statistically as a reduction in incidents. There simply aren't enough incidents to meaningfully reduce their occurrence. Finally, I point out once again that there is virtually no correlation between speed and safety on a roller coaster. In fact it is very possible that the opposite is true. As the rides grow taller and faster, they are held to an increasing standard of engineering and operational care, which should result in them becoming progressively *safer*. --Dave Althoff, Jr. (Member, ASTM Committee F-24 on Amusement Rides and Devices, and student of amusement ride safety)

Submitted by Tim (not verified) on
The author’s ability to take the CPSC note that "...thousands are injured each year at fixed-ride and traveling ride sites across the U.S...." and turn it into a sub-headline stating: "Thousands injured each year on roller coaster rides" is irresponsible sensationalism. The majority of the injuries are the result of incidents not involving rides - ankle sprains, abrasions, etc., sustained while walking through the park. This same author has written recent articles on Big Foot and UFO's. I'm sure he can derive some sort of a link between UFO (or Big Foot) sightings and roller coaster injuries.

Submitted by djerct2 (not verified) on
In the US the average number of fatalities on the roads each year is between 33,000 and 43,000. What are you going to deduce from that...ban cars? design slower cars? It is a shame journalists put risk out of all proportions. Statistically more people are injured in the kitchen at home than riding roller coasters.

Submitted by Reporter (not verified) on
I take issue with the amusement ride industry spokesmen who've replied here, and think roller coaster rides are "safe" and that it's all just happy days with no worries. I simply reported what lawmakers in Congress are hearing from Americans who want more safety rules for these rides that do kill and hurt more people than most realize. Congress is looking at these rides as a clear and present danger to American's health and safety. DM

Submitted by djerct2 (not verified) on
You might wish to put the lawmakers concerns into context before sensationalising the risks of riding roller coasters. There is a cross-reference to amusement park fatality statistics on the themedattraction.com website which says "The CPSC estimates there are between 3,000 to 3,500 accidents each year involving permanent amusement rides. Of those, just 2 percent are serious enough to require overnight hospitalization. There are an average three fatalities per-year related to amusement park rides -- or one fatality in every 90 million park visits. But CPSC and other studies show that only a small portion of ride-related injuries are caused by design, operation or maintenance problems. Most are the result of horseplay, patron negligence or situations unrelated to the operation or condition of the ride. " The truth is that in this sad litigious age, the families of those injured or killed through their own horseplay and negligence are more than happy to sue the amusement parks instead of taking responsibility for their actions, as it's far too easy to believe that any injury must be "someone else's fault"...in reality injuries caused through some malfunction of the rides themselves or neglect by the park owners are incredibly rare. These are facts, not any biased opinion of an industry spokeperson (which I am not anyway). Why can't the lawmakers do something to improve driving standards and training, for example, that might save thousands of lives every year, many innocently lost on the Nation's roads and sidewalks? To put risk into perspective, I read that there is a 1 in 1 million chance of dying in the bath, and 1 in 2 million chance of being killed falling out of bed...it's about time the lawmakers took a reality check instead of putting the livelihood of park operators under increasing strain through higher regulation, higher insurance and more red tape. It's hard enough to keep the already-fragile amusement park industry operating, without more and unnecessary regulation.

Submitted by Eric G (not verified) on
Reporter, give us a break here. You loose even more credibility when you say "Congress is looking at these rides as clear and present danger. Let's set the record straight. Congress is NOT looking at amusement park rides. One Congressman has been looking at them and crusading for more unnecessary regulation. Second, most people thanks to the media's obsession are aware of each and every accident despite how rare they actually occur. Furthermore, no legislation, inspection or any supervision would've prevented the two most recent and highly publicized accidents. That's a fact you cannot dispute. What I would like to see happen is simple. Those who are concerned about their well being and afraid of the alleged deadly amusement park rides should stay home. It's that simple. If you want to live a risk free life then please be my guest and leave the rest of us who enjoy our rides alone. Finally, to the author of this article. You need to find a new job. You're failing miserably as a reporter.

Submitted by RideMan (not verified) on
I don't consider myself a spokesman for anybody. I sign my messages with both my well-known handle and my real name so that if you want to know where my biases are, it's right out in the open. And quite frankly, I have a vested interest in amusement rides being *safe*: I'm in a park somewhere about once or twice a week all summer long, and I would very much like to *not* be one of those people hurt or killed on an amusement ride this summer! I'm also not entirely convinced that things are as safe as they could be. I mean, so far this summer, five people have been killed by amusement rides in North America: o Sgt. James Hackemer, ejected from Ride of Steel, Darien Lake o Abiah Jones, fell from the Ferris wheel, Morey's Piers o Jayson Dansby, ejected from the Python Pit coaster, Go Bananas o Brian Greenhouse, ejected from the Hi Miler, Ray Cammack Shows/Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo o Benji Easler, killed in the train wreck at Cleveland Park, SC ...And that's just the customers. There have also been at least four park or show employees killed on the job this season. There are lessons to be learned from every incident. In four of those five patron deaths, the passenger left the ride vehicle in the complete absence of any mechanical failure of any kind. Of those four, one is a case where the rider probably should not have been on the ride at all. But what of the other three? Has something changed such that riders of all ages (these people were 3, 11, and 47 years of age) no longer know how to behave on a ride? It's also worth noting that one of the three fatalities is on a ride which is presently in the jurisdiction of the CPSC, in exactly the way that has been proposed by Rep. Markey every legislative session since 2005. So far, CPSC jurisdiction in that case has neither prevented the incident, nor given us better answers for what went wrong. There are most certainly safety issues out there that need to be addressed. Whether it's a need to remind park goers that they are ultimately most responsible for their own safety, a critical look at operational and maintenance procedures in the parks, or an examination of the actual regulatory climate and its effect on ride safety, there definitely room for improvement. Five fatalities in the past seven months speaks to that. But dragging out long-discredited CPSC statistics (their "thousands" of injuries are based on a statistical model, not on actual injury reports), throwing together every scary-sounding report issued over the past decade and using a lot of anecdotes about how "it looks scary therefore it must be unsafe" is no way to further the cause. It just adds to the noise. --Dave Althoff, Jr.

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