Amusement park rides take thrill-seekers to the precipice. There is a moment of quiet, then, hearts pounding, they are flung like rocks from a slingshot.
The danger is perceived, not real. Right? Statistically, riding a roller coaster is safer than using a staircase.But since 1985 an average of five deaths and 7,000 injuries serious enough to require hospital visits have occurred each year on amusement rides across the nation, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
At the same time, amusement parks are increasingly popular. Last year there were 253 million visits to amusement parks, an increase of 38 million since 1986, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
"I know lots of carnival and amusement-park operators, and they're paranoid about safety. They lay awake nights," said R.K. "Rolly" Larsen, executive director of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. "They're paying 10 percent of their revenues for insurance premiums."
Concern about safety begins with a ride's design. Roller-coaster designers are creating ever more terrifying rides, but technological advances and computer-aided design are keeping these monster coasters safe, said coaster designer Curtis Summers. "We walk a very fine line between giving people thrills, but not causing injury or discomfort," Summers said.
Higher standards in ride manufacturing are improving safety, but more could be done, Larsen said. "Sometimes people don't know there's a problem until an accident occurs," he said. "The odds of an inspector discovering something (a manufacturing defect) that would lead to an accident are remote."
Rides need more "redundant" safety features such as extra bolts, chains and hangers on gondolas, Larsen said.
A manufacturing defect in a wheel assembly was blamed for a 1984 accident that injured eight people on the King Cobra at King's Island near Cincinnati. Regular visual inspection of the ride did not - and probably could not - have detected the problem.
Inspections, in fact, are hardly foolproof. In 1974, Sharon Kahle was killed and her husband, Kenneth, was permanently injured when they fell 25 feet from a ferris wheel at a New Richmond, Ohio, carnival. The ride had been inspected, but the Kahles' safety bar still gave way.
Most inspections are handled by state agencies. In Ohio, for example, they're handled by the Department of Agriculture's Amusement Ride Safety Division. The 11 inspectors, two supervisors and director licensed nearly 1,400 rides last year.
They inspect amusement parks before opening and two to three times per season and inspect traveling carnival rides about six times a year. Inspectors from the park's insurance company also visit twice a year.