When the worst happens

The worst thing that can happen at a theme park, amusement park, water park, or carnival is an injury to a rider.  The rider and their family obviously are hurt worst, but the owner/operator and the entire industry shares the pain.

Many people work very hard to make sure rider injury does not happen, and because of the success of that effort, it rarely does happen. In the immediate aftermath, thoughts often go to negligence. Was the inspection skipped or shortcut? Did someone leave a part out? Did the rider bring it on themselves by misbehaving?

This speculation is the reason authorities often say very little immediately following an injury to one or more riders. However, it is probably safer to bet against negligence than on it.

Rather than misbehaving, it is more likely that a rider error was miscalculation or misunderstanding.

Inspection is a complex task, and inspectors are resourceful about consulting their network to share safety information. Inspections may not catch a critical defect (such as a crack or corrosion) because it was concealed inside other parts or failed so abruptly that the defect was not detectable at all at the time of inspection. A ride may have been maintained and inspected precisely as described in the manufacturer’s manual, but rarely, an unexpected failure mode occurs for the first time that could not be detected by any of the prescribed inspection procedures. A typical manufacturer response is to immediately order all similar rides out of service until the defect is fully understood and an inspection and repair program is developed.

Even assembly and maintenance omissions or errors are more likely a misunderstanding of requirements than lack of care for safety. Operators and their staff put their own family on the rides as well. A strong system of inspection is a valuable backup for any omissions and errors that occur in assembly and maintenance.

The reason the accident occurred may be a mystery until the investigation is completed, but there is no mystery why the injury happened.

Rider injuries occur when a large amount of energy attacks the body.   One of the most serious failure modes is if the rider separates from the seat, or the seat or vehicle separates from the rest of the ride, causing the rider to land on the ground or strike against another structure. The degree of injury will depend on the amount of energy transferred to the rider’s body on impact and the body part receiving the impact.

If a little car detached from a small, low, slow umbrella kiddie ride, the following cars may bump into the stopped one, before the operator manages to activate the stop button. Properly seated children may bump against the “steering wheel” when the cars collide but no ejection or fall would be expected.

There is a lot more energy at play when the rider’s body is moving fast, high in the air, or both. Even in a high-energy ride, however, unless the rider or the seat separates from the rest of the ride, the injuries are likely to be little more than muscle strains and bumps from sliding and flailing in the seat.

Injuries on amusement rides are rare. Many injuries recorded as “amusement ride” injuries involve devices that are not carnival rides or theme park rides. Industry-sponsored independent analysis reports that millions of rides are taken every year and the number of serious injuries (let alone fatal injuries) are very few. Patrons who are not comforted by the extremely rare rate of occurrence of injury on amusement rides can look for rides that are slow and low to the ground, and follow all instructions, so that if a device malfunction occurs, any injury would likely be minimal.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (https://thrilllab.blog.ryerson.ca), and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.