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Don’t condemn theme parks after freak accidents

Modified: Monday, Jul 22nd, 2013

A freak accident, according to Webster’s dictionary, is defined as “oddly different from what is usual or normal.”

Examples include being struck by lightning, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant snapping his achilles heel during a routine move … and also, as we heard about Friday, a woman falling out of Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas to her death and a boat flipping over on Shoot the Rapids at Cedar Point, causing moderate injuries.

Before you pull out your pitchforks and call for the death of theme parks, remember this: These were freak accidents, both extremely rare and isolated incidents.

Roller coasters have come a long ways, especially safety-wise, since their birth. They’ve got lap bars, single, sometimes double seatbelts, over-the-shoulder restraints. Ride designers have learned to create a teardrop-shaped loop rather than a neck-snapping perfect circle.

But still, freak accidents do happen, although they are rare. The last fatality to happen on a roller coaster in the United States at a major theme park (excluding carnivals) was in July 2011, when a man, a U.S. Army veteran who had lost both of his legs in Iraq, was ejected from Ride of Steel at Darien Lake in New York, according to amusementsafety.org.

When an accident happens, it makes national news. Why? Because it is nearly unheard of. A freak accident, if you will.

And that is a testament to the safety of roller coasters.

We come to expect it — it’s a given — and they always deliver. When we hear that a ride’s safety mechanisms have failed, we are shocked.

As both Texas Giant and Shoot the Rapids are currently under inspection and closed, we don’t know for certain what truly caused the safeguards of these rides to fail. But that doesn’t stop the general public to become “experts” on the situation, just because they have a camera in front of them, or worse, a keyboard.

Among the many, many cringe-worthy comments posted on various news websites was this one posted by (surprise) an anonymous writer on CNN.com: “Blame goes to these adventure parks for glamorizing these risky rides.”

Are roller coasters risky? In a sense, yes. But so is everything else … driving, riding a bike, playing a sport.

People die or are injured in car crashes every day. You are more at risk of dying in a car crash on your way to a theme park than you are at the actual park itself. Where is the outrage after a fatal car accident? Because they are commonplace.

Rumors have been floating around about the Texas Giant incident, many of which claim that the woman was “too large” to fit on the ride (later reports show that the woman was indeed overweight), and that the restraints did not properly lock.

But again, this is all speculation. News reports have gone squarely on witness statements, which often contradict each other, and more often than not, are false. As has been pointed out before, the Dallas Morning News quoted a witness saying the lap bar did not “click” in place, and that the ride operator was “nonchalant.”

However, Texas Giant’s lap bars use a hydraulic restraint system, which do not “click” when secured. Also, green lights on the back of the train’s cars tell the ride operators that all lap bars are secured. If not, the train can not be dispatched.

Six Flags Over Texas wisely refused to speculate, instead doing the right thing and assuring guests that safety is their top priority, and a full investigation will reveal what really happened.

There’s no denying the fact that what happened Friday was tragic and cast a dark cloud over the amusement industry. But to disregard the stellar safety records of theme parks and roller coasters and instead condemn them as “death traps” after one freak accident is ignorant and foolish.

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