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Here's what to know about roller coaster safety after 2 recent scares

Visitors ride the roller coaster Scream at the theme park Six Flags Magic Mountain, in Valencia, California, in 2021.
Valerie Macon
/
AFP via Getty Images
Visitors ride the roller coaster Scream at the theme park Six Flags Magic Mountain, in Valencia, California, in 2021.

Just as amusement parks, local carnivals and county fairs kick into high gear for the summer, welcoming tens of millions of enthusiastic people — many in search of taller, faster and more twisty roller coasters — some sobering reports may dampen the enthusiasm.

Last week in Charlotte, N.C., Carowinds Amusement Park shut down its marquee roller coaster after a patron took video of an alarming crack in one of the ride's supports. Then on Sunday, eight passengers were stuck upside down for hours on a coaster at the Forest County Festival in Crandon, Wis., due to a mechanical problem.

How are rides regulated?

It depends. For fixed-site amusement parks such as Carowinds, states are responsible for regulations and inspections. Mobile amusements, such as carnival rides, are overseen by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. In both cases, however, states carry out routine inspections.

Those inspections follow guidelines established by ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials. Although voluntary, the ASTM International standards are widely followed by amusement parks and frequently incorporated into state regulations of parks and mobile attractions.

"All of these amusement rides and devices, there's a lifecycle to them," says Franceen Gonzales, who chairs the ASTM International committee dealing with amusement rides and devices. The standards apply to everything from design and manufacture to installation, testing, commissioning and operation, she says.

"I think the regulators do a really good job of making sure that the rides that are being installed in their states are safe," says Gonzales, who has three decades of experience in park operation. "They stay safe by looking at them every single year, issuing those operating permits, making sure they can see the documentation of how those rides are being maintained and how they're being inspected."

In an email to NPR, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA, an amusement park trade association, says inspections are carried out by park staff, state regulatory officials, third-party inspectors and insurance companies. "The inspection model is like the commercial aircraft model which also consists of different types of inspections based on hours of flight and all layered on top of each other to create a rigorous inspection schedule," the IAAPA said.

Even so, two states — Nevada and Wyoming — have no regulations governing amusements in fixed-site parks. Regulations in two other states, Alabama and Utah, passed just this year.

Gonzales says Nevada has been looking into regulation and Wyoming doesn't have any fixed-site amusement parks. She emphasizes, however, that most operators voluntarily comply with standards, regardless of their regulatory situation.

How safe are rides?

According to IAAPA, there are 0.9 injuries per million rides and that in a typical year, more than 385 million guests take more than 1.7 billion rides at about 400 North American fixed-site facilities. The CPSC, meanwhile, says between 2017 and 2019, there were 34,700 injuries on amusement attractions — both at fixed parks and on mobile attractions, including water parks. There have also been several fatalities over the years, but those incidents have been rare.

Just what constitutes an injury varies by state and who is collecting the data, Gonzales says. For example, one definition is any injury that requires an overnight hospital stay.

She says no one class of ride stands out as inherently more dangerous than another. Even so, "when you're on a roller coaster [or another type of] mechanical ride, oftentimes you're in the seat, you're in a restraint, and then you don't participate that much," Gonzales says. On other types of rides, safety is more incumbent on the rider.

"You have to have a person riding a waterslide hold on to the handlebars. You might have a go-kart driver that's got to be going on the right path of the course. And you might have somebody on an inflatable that has to do the right thing by following the rules," she says. "And if guests follow the rules that they were given as required in [the] standards, then in general you end up with a safe ride."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.