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Are You at Risk in Amusement Parks?

For two minutes, you're moving very fast. You face rapid starts, jarring stops, sharp turns, disorientation, and a sense that you're three times as heavy as normal. You're not on a jet fighter or a runaway train—you're on a roller coaster.

Thrill rides at amusement parks and traveling shows are higher, faster and wilder than ever. But are they dangerous?

More than 270 million people go to amusement parts each year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of that number, about 7,000 people are treated for injuries involving amusement park rides.

In 2003, the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) released a study on injuries caused by roller coasters. The BIAA found that rides posed a health risk for some people, but that those people already had been warned against riding on roller coasters, says Gregory O. Shanick, M.D., the BIAA's national medical director.

Groups at risk include pregnant women and people with heart problems, epilepsy, back or neck injuries, or prior orthopedic surgery, Dr. Shanick says. The BIAA report says, "The overwhelming majority of riders will suffer no ill effects." Still, the group suggested more research and better tracking of injuries.

So, are you at risk? Your decision to go on a ride should be based on knowing—and obeying—your physical and medical limitations, the BIAA says. Reputable parks and carnivals will clearly post the age, height, weight, and health restrictions for each ride. It's your responsibility as a rider to make sure you meet those restrictions.

Use common sense, the BIAA says. If there has been an abrupt change in your physical status or any other unusual or unexplained symptoms, skip the ride.

Many experts blame risky conduct for accidents. It's vital that children understand how mischief can cause an accident, says Richard Brown, Ph.D., a California orthopedic researcher and amusement park safety consultant.

"Review the safety rules with them before they get on the ride, so that they know what is expected of them," Dr. Brown says. "Ask questions to get them thinking about the consequences of foolish behavior, such as 'What could happen if you unhooked your seat belt on a roller coaster?'"

Your ticket to a safer ride

  • Scope out the park. Poorly tended grounds might reflect poor upkeep on rides.

  • Inspect the rides. If a ride has torn seats, worn safety belts, rusty parts or sections closed with tape, pass. If no rules are clearly posted, move on. Watch the operator, too. Is he paying close attention? If not, tell a manager at once.

  • Follow the rules. Read and obey instructions, restrictions and warnings for each ride. Don't assume rules for one ride cover all rides. Heed operators' verbal instructions.

  • Avoid risky behavior. Make sure you and your children understand the rules and act appropriately. If you see unruly riders, tell the operator at once.

  • Know when to skip rides. If you're not up to high G-forces, sudden turns and other action, find a calmer ride. Stay off thrill rides if you have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure or stroke, or are taking blood-thinning drugs.

  • Take care with children. Obey height rules. They ensure a child has the muscle and posture control to ride safely. Tell children what they will face. If there's just one spot left, wait until you and your child can ride together.

  • Pick rides that suit kids' ages. Start toddlers on a merry-go-round or slow cars meant for their age group. Move up in steps to faster rides.