WASHINGTON – Roller coasters are still safe, even though they are faster and taller than ever before, according to two studies released Tuesday by physicians and amusement park industry officials.
The studies reported, among other things, that amusement park injuries make up only a tiny proportion of cases seen in emergency rooms across the country and that a sneeze creates g-forces similar to those produced by the fastest roller coaster.
“This is a non-issue looking for a cause,” said Dr. Gregory L. Henry of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Out of 60 billion rides in the past 30 years, one of the studies found nine published cases of brain injury, none directly caused by rides.
“This is not even on our radar screen,” Henry said. “I’ve never seen it in my entire career.”
The reports come one month before an independent panel, supported by federal funds, is expected to release its own report on amusement park safety. The study by the Brain Injury Association of America was sparked by charges by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that there have been over 50 cases of amusement park injuries in the past five years.
Markey said in a prepared statement Tuesday that he would reintroduce a bill calling for federal oversight of amusement park rides.
But Henry said that only around 20 of Markey’s 50 cases were verifiable enough to be included in the study released Tuesday. Sponsors said the studies grew out of frequent criticism and popular opinion that the rides are unsafe.
“Our main purpose in conducting these studies was to reassure our patrons,” said Gary Story, president and chief operating officer of Six Flags Inc. “Amusement park rides do not present a public health risk and are far safer than many other of our daily activities.”
Markey has said that in August 1999, four people died within a six-day span from injuries at amusement parks across the country. Capital News Service reported that a 16-year-old girl died from a tear to her aorta about an hour after riding the Batwing coaster at Six Flags America in Largo in September 2001, but the autopsy did not say whether the ride contributed to her death.
Under plans announced Tuesday by Six Flags and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, doctors and hospitals will report ride-related neurological injuries directly to a monitoring board.
The industry is also working on plans with the American College of Emergency Physicians to monitor non-brain injuries, such as heart problems. The two studies also included reviews of cases of brain injuries published in the medical literature.
One of the common concerns about roller coasters is that as they become faster and higher, they expose riders to dangerously large g-forces. One `g’ is the acceleration produced by the Earth’s gravity, but engineers measured roller coaster accelerations of up to 8 g’s for brief moments, said Lee V. Dickinson of Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, which conducted the experiment.
But Exponent’s experiments also showed that a person hit on the head with a pillow could feel an acceleration up to 28 g’s horizontally, while sneezing created g-forces similar to those of a ride. Dickinson also said that g-forces have not increased as speeds of rides have increased, because newer technology allows a smoother ride.
But the national medical director of the Brain Injury Association of America said that sneezing is not particularly comparable to riding a roller coaster. Because a person knows they are going to sneeze, automatic reflexes counter the g-forces to some extent, said Dr. Gregory O’Shanick.
He said the industry-supported studies seem to have reviewed the same medical literature as he had. But while those groups had stuck to the perspectives of aeronautics and emergency medicine, O’Shanick said his team includes biomechanical engineers, neuroscientists, and epidemiologists, among others.
Although the industry-supported studies focused on brain injuries, the sponsors said they plan to include other sorts of injuries in the future. Henry said riders are as safe from other kinds of injuries as they are from brain injuries, because the number of injuries is “infinitesimally small.”
But O’Shanick noted that small is a relative term.
“Even if it only occurs in a minute number of people, to that family, to that individual, it is a significant problem,” he said.