Amusement Park Safety -- What You Need to Know

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Fifteen people were injured on Aug. 11, 2010 in an amusement park accident when a train ride at a Colorado amusement park derailed. The operator of the ride at Tiny Town park was found to have been driving the train as much as five times the normal speed limit when it went off the tracks. (He told authorities he meant to hit the brakes but accelerated instead.)It was the most recent amusement park accident to capture national headlines and to illustrate how good times can go wrong at parks in the U.S. and around the world.

Amusement park rides generally have a good safety record, but sometimes the unexpected happens.

Though amusement park safety requires vigilance on the part of the parks and reasonable care on the part of visitors, nearly 300 million people do safely enjoy 1.7 billion rides each year at the roughly 400 fixed-site theme parks in the U.S., according to Colleen Mangone, spokesperson for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA, is the largest international trade association for permanently situated amusement facilities worldwide, with members from 90 countries -- among them, most of the fixed-site amusement parks and attractions in the United States.

According to the organization, your chances of being seriously injured (read: requiring overnight hospitalization, or worse) in an amusement park accident in one of the U.S. permanently located parks is a mere one in 9 million. Pretty good odds, to be sure.

But accidents do occur -- whether due to equipment failure, an unforeseen health issue that causes problems for the rider or a lapse in protocol on the part of an operator, such as in the case of Tiny Town. And when something goes wrong, a magic day at the theme park can take a tragic turn.

All across the nation, you'll find fixed-site theme parks -- think Six Flags and Walt Disney World -- as well as smaller, moving carnivals and fairs (the IAAPA does not represent these mobile attractions).

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- a federal agency with jurisdiction over rides at mobile theme parks and attractions -- there were approximately 3,000 amusement park accidents reported on mobile park rides in the U.S. in 2009.

Records from the National Safety Council , which tracks injuries at fixed parks, show roughly half that number. There were an estimated 1,523 injury reports from incidents in 2008, the last year for which data has been made public -- that equates to approximately 4.7 injuries for every one million attendees.

And while traveling amusement parks are subject to government regulation by the CPSC, permanent or "fixed" parks are dealt with on a state-to-state basis, often with entities like the department of labor or department of commerce in charge of inspections to ensure safety.

"State regulations vary but nearly all require incident reporting, inspection by the state or a state approved inspector, and insurance," says Mangone, "In addition to state regulations, insurers also inspect rides and require that certain specifications be met."

According to Six Flags spokesperson Sandra Daniels, "All rides and attractions (at Six Flags park) undergo an annual state inspection. Additionally, our engineering and maintenance staff inspect all rides and attractions on a daily basis.

"We spend more than 3,000 hours per day on safety checks and follow the guidelines as set forth by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) Committee F24," wrote Daniels in an e-mail to AOL Travel.

The ASTM -- comprised of more than 400 park operators, manufacturers, government inspectors/regulators, and consumer advocates -- establishes standards on design and manufacture, operation, testing and more, and undergoes frequent review to keep up with changes in technology.

But whether at fixed-site theme parks or here-today-gone-tomorrow fun fairs, some of the grisliest amusement park accidents on record were the result of rider error -- among those, the 2006 incident at Six Flags Over Georgia, in which a teenager was decapitated when he entered a restricted area under the Batman roller coaster to retrieve his hat and was beheaded by the ride in the process.

Other times, pre-existing health conditions, such as heart abnormalities, can make riders more susceptible to health problems that are exacerbated by the intensity of a ride. (If you have any doubt about whether you're in good enough health to go flying down a roller coaster track, it's best to consult with a doctor ahead of time.)

And, of course, there are plenty of occasions where the theme parks made grave oversights, as was the case in 2003 when investigators found Disney responsible for the death of a rider on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland in California -- the ride's wheel assembly malfunctioned, sending a locomotive into a nosedive and a passenger to his death.

Read on for some of the worst amusement park accidents in recent years:

Amusement Park Safety

jpvargas, flickr

Tibidabo Amusement Park, Barcelona, Spain, July 2010
A 15-year-old Spanish girl was killed while riding the attraction called El Pendulo (the Pendulum) at this popular amusement park in Barcelona. The ride had a mechanical arm with a gondola attached to it that swung high into the air, up to 124 feet, before dropping riders in a freefall at speeds over 60 miles per hour. In this tragic case, the mechanical arm broke, and the basket, which was carrying several riders, fell on top of another ride. In addition to the fatality, three people were injured. The ride had undergone an inspection in June 2010. And maintenance teams had inspected it the day of the incident (prior to the catastrophe), too, after it was reported that strange noises were coming from it. No problem was detected and the ride was deemed safe to continue operation. After the accident, several other park rides were closed, too, as investigations into their design and maintenance took place. El Pendulo was fully dismantled a month after the incident.

Amusement Park Safety

Extreme World Amusements, Lake Delton, Wis., July 2010
A 12-year-old Florida girl, Teagan Marti, was critically injured in July at a Wisconsin Dells amusement park attraction called Terminal Velocity when the ride's operator failed to ensure that safety nets were ready to cushion her fall of 100 feet. The tower-like ride features a free-fall of 100 feet into a net, using no bungee cords or other tether devices -- a net supported with air tubes is meant to cushion the fall. The ride's operator said that he "blanked out" and never saw the "all clear" signals that meant it was safe to release the girl for the free fall. Marti remains hospitalized and could potentially be paralyzed for the rest of her life. A lawsuit has been filed against the park.

Dixie Landin' Amusement Park, Baton Rouge, La., July 2010
A 21-year-old Lafayette, La. woman, Lindsay Zeno, fell roughly 30 feet to her death in July while riding the Xtreme, a rollercoaster at Dixie Landin' Amusement Park. The attraction, which promises riders "a different ride every time," spins as it races along a steel track. According to reports, the victim's restraints came unlocked during the fateful ride. Witnesses said Zeno struggled to hold the safety bar down but was unsuccessful. She was ultimately thrown to her death from the ride. The Xtreme had passed a safety inspection in early June, and no issues with its seat restraints were found. The victim's family is suing the park.

Ecoventure Valley of Overseas Chinese Town theme park, Shenzhen, China, June 2010
Six people were killed and at least nine injured during a horrific malfunction at a Chinese theme park on a ride called Space Journey that's meant to mimic a Space Shuttle Journey. The attraction consists of 11 cabins carrying four people each that elevate riders for a high-speed spin complete with 2Gs of gravity "so that your dream of flying to space appears to come true," according to the park's website. The ride, unique to this theme park and new in May 2009, has been closed since the incident. No reason has yet been given as to why it malfunctioned, but there were various unconfirmed reports of an explosion, a cabin plummeting to the ground after coming loose and hitting another cabin, and a power outage.

Amusement Park Safety

Joey Ivansco, MCT

Six Flags Over Georgia, July 2008
A teenager from South Carolina was decapitated by the Batman roller coaster at Six Flags Over Georgia after he crossed several security fences and entered a restricted area to retrieve a hat he had lost while riding the same rollercoaster moments before. The ride had reached its top speed of 50 miles per hour when the victim was struck (nobody riding on the rollercoaster was injured during the event). The rollercoaster was temporarily closed following the event to show respect for the victim and his family. In May 2002, a park worker was struck and killed by the same ride when he, too, wandered into a restricted area. The ride was temporarily closed following that event and later deemed safe for passengers.

Amusement Park Safety

Ed Reinke, AP

Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, June 2007
Teenager Kaitlyn Lasitter had both of her feet severed while riding an attraction called the Superman Tower of Power -- a 177-foot-tall tower that delivered its thrills by dropping passengers at speeds of 54 miles per hour. According to statements by Lasitter in court documents, the ride jolted as it started to move upwards. Cables fell on top of Lasitter and her friends, and she said, "I remember smoke and the smell of burning. I felt like I was going to die." When the ride was brought back down, it was discovered that both of Lasitter's feet had been cut off above the ankles. According to a statement from a Six Flags spokesperson, "The ride was immediately closed, a full review conducted and it was determined a component of the ride failed. The ride was later dismantled." Lasitter's family sued the park. The park eventually closed in 2010 after rejecting a lease with the Kentucky State Fair Board.

Amusement Park Safety

Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Disney MGM Studios Theme Park (renamed Disney's Hollywood Studios), Orlando, Fla., 2006
A 12-year-old boy who was visiting Disney's MGM Studios with his parents and seven- year-old brother died after riding the Aerosmith-themed Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The boy's father said he noticed his son became limp during the one-minute ride that, according to the park's website, launches from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds. The father performed CPR on his son when the ride ended, but the boy was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. An autopsy showed that the boy had congenital heart abnormalities. Nothing mechanical from the ride was determined to have caused the death, and it remains one of the park's popular attractions.

Amusement Park Safety

Rockin' Raceway, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., March 2004
June Alexander was celebrating her son's 15th birthday at Rockin' Raceway theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. when she was killed after falling 60 feet from a pendulum ride called the Hawk. The ride's thrills came in rocking back and forth like a ship before eventually turning upside down. After the incident, it was determined that Alexander's safety harnesses had been loose and there had been tampering with equipment -- cables had been installed in the ride's electrical panel that enabled it to bypass a safety mechanism that would have kept the ride from starting if harnesses weren't properly fastened. Criminal charges were filed against the manager of the amusement park. And while Rockin' Raceway still exists, there no longer are thrill rides. Today, the park operates as an arcade with go cart tracks.

Amusement Park Safety

Damian Dovargane, AP

Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif., Sept. 2003
Mechanical failures on the iconic Big Thunder Mountain Railroad rollercoaster at Disneyland in California caused the death of 22-year-old Marcelo Torres. The amusement park accident occurred when a wheel assembly fell off one of the ride's locomotives, causing it to nosedive. Torres had been sitting in the lead car. The results of an investigation following the accident put the blame on park maintenance workers, ride operators and a mechanic. Disney accepted responsibility for the accident and settled with the Torres family for an undisclosed sum.

Amusement Park Safety

Carl Court, AP

Ducketts Common Funfair, Wood Green, England, 2009
A two-year-old boy was killed in 2009 after wandering onto the tracks of a children's roller coaster ride at Ducketts Common, a small park in Wood Green, North London that hosts a traveling fun fair every May. The boy had been playing at a nearby bounce house when he wandered past railings and onto the tracks of the Go-Gator kiddie coaster, where he was struck by the ride. The fairground was closed following the incident.

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