How Safe Are Theme Park Rides?

Coasters are getting wilder -- but safety mechanisms are getting more sophisticated

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Raw Video from Chopper4: Watch as Prince George's County Fire and EMS rescuers take people off a Six Flags America Roller Coaster. The passengers were stuck about 75 feet above the ground on the Jokers Jinx coaster Sunday. (Published Sunday, Aug 10, 2014)

    Four hours is a long time to sit around doing nothing.

    It’s an especially long time if you're suspended 79 feet in the air, as some riders were this weekend after the Joker's Jinx roller coaster stalled at its highest point at Six Flags America in Maryland.

    No one was injured, and after a lengthy rescue attempt, the ride was evacuated. But as coasters evolve in height and complexity, you may be wondering:  How safe are they?

    For the answer, we talked to Mike Collins, a D.C. native who co-hosts a theme park podcast, CoasterRadio.com.

    Collins, who has toured the backstage areas of some major parks to see their safety mechanisms firsthand, said most theme park guests probably don’t realize how much thought is given to safety.

    "For somebody who doesn’t know about these things, getting stuck like that so high up is pretty scary," Collins said. "But there’s so many different computer systems and sensors behind the scenes keeping you safe."

    Earlier this year, guests at another Six Flags park, Great Adventure in New Jersey, got stuck on the Nitro coaster when the power went out in a section of the park.

    "Joker's Jinx and Nitro did what they were supposed to do when the system detected that something had gone wrong," Collins said. "But those poor people having to walk down Nitro's 230-foot lift hill must have been scared."

    But sometimes even a modern thrill ride can cause a serious accident.

    A broken cable caused injuries on a large swing ride at Cedar Point in Ohio earlier this year. In 2013, a woman died after being ejected from the New Texas Giant coaster at Six Flags Over Texas. The same day, a water ride at Cedar Point in Ohio upended and injured six people.

    Collins tackled the topic of safety in a recent podcast, where he wondered if a spate of unusual incidents had contributed to a reported 8-percent drop in attendance at Six Flags parks this year.

    Colleen Mangone, from The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), told NBC4 in an email that serious accidents are very rare.

    "The likelihood of being seriously injured (require overnight hospitalization for treatment) on a permanently located amusement park ride in the U.S. is 1 in 24 million," Mangone said.

    Collins was also keen to impress that accidents are rare.

    "As rides get bigger and better, the safety systems get much more sophisticated," Collins said. "There's an abundance of caution."

    Universal Orlando's Harry Potter-themed lands are popular with guests and feature cutting-edge rides, but with technological advances come technical hiccups. (Universal Orlando, like NBCWashington.com, is owned by NBCUniversal.)

    Collins said he once became stuck on the park's Forbidden Journey ride.

    "We were in an awkward position, laying on our backs," he said. "The people around me were really freaking out. I had to explain to them that nothing was going to happen; we weren't going to fall out."

    Mangone from IAAPA explained that many times a ride is stopped by the computer control system as a precaution.

    "While this can be inconvenient for guests, it is important to allow maintenance, operations, and safety personnel the time they need to determine the reason for the stoppage," she said.

    She also explained that there are "multiple layers of inspection" that rides must undergo daily. She said some ride manufacters also require "detailed inspections and specialized maintenance procedures that are completed on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis."

    Theme parks are adding sensors along tracks that monitor speed, and many modern coasters have hydraulic restraints that keep riders securely in their seats.

    "I do think there is a little need for personal responsibility too," Collins said. "You have to check that you feel secure, that you're using the restraints correctly and call an attendant over if something seems wrong."

    Collins acknowledged that there is always the chance that something could go wrong with an aggressive thrill ride, but he said that ultimately, the worst thing most riders are likely to endure is boredom.

    "With these advanced safety mechanisms come more opportunities for riders to get stuck, safe but bored," Collins said.

    According to a state inspection report, Joker's Jinx at Six Flags America last passed inspection May 1.