Breaking Down Ride Break Downs
by Tori Finlay
For some enthusiasts, getting stuck on a ride is an exciting occurrence – something that is sometimes seen but rarely experienced firsthand. We talk about capacity and downtime without thought of what that actually entails. Actually being stranded on a ride is this opportunity to observe how a park runs their operations, and how they handle the situation. And hey, maybe even get a free ride out of it.
For the general public, getting stuck on a ride is a nightmare. I’ve seen adults cry sitting 20 feet off the ground, securely on the lift hill. It’s a worst case scenario for most, and one they face with little dignity.
The media paints quite the picture, too. Guests sit 100+ feet high awaiting their certain doom! Admittedly, baking in the sun with no protection on a ride is not most people’s idea of a good time. The park’s response is always the same: It was a ride error, we got the stranded off as soon as we could, we apologize for the inconvenience.
It’s not really the mild discomfort of having to sit in a seat for 15 or so minutes that people become hysterical about, though. It’s that concept that if the train has stopped unexpectedly, they are about to meet their inevitable demise. Moms have cursed out ride operators in my presence because the ride stopped with their child on it.
Few realize that the ride stopping is a safety. Even before I became an enthusiast, at a young age I came to the realization that being “stuck” on a ride wasn’t a death sentence. Perhaps I was alone is this conclusion, but nonetheless it only takes a bit of observation and logic, even without an enthusiast’s knowledge to notice a few things.
1. There are only brakes in certain flat spots, and no brakes in any inversions (and how ridiculous the consequences would be if there were).
2. The trains never come within a set of brakes from each other.
3. The reason operators don’t take guests off the ride is that there is no immediate danger.
4. Taking people off the ride without identifying the issue could actually be more dangerous than allowing them to sit there for a few minutes while everything is sorted.
5. The horrifically tarnished reputation of Six Flags should be a perfect example as to why, if there were danger, parks would rush to their aid prior to maintaining any precedence it might hold for normal situations.
Final Destination 3’s classic roller coaster massacre scene is often referenced in such situations. I don’t intend to pick apart the reasons why this scene is ignorant of reason and basic physics; I only wish to state the portrayal in popular culture of what a roller coaster’s danger to society is. I don’t intend any disrespect to the injured or dead, but the vast majority of bodily harm done by roller coasters is due to guests not listening to basic rider safety rules. Entering restricted areas, undoing restraints, taking out cell phones and dropping them, which then fly back into other people’s faces.
And what people often forget is that they are riding a machine. Your car is also a machine. I doubt it works perfectly, that it has always worked perfectly, and that it will continue to work perfectly. Instead, stuff happens. Your oil leaks sometimes, your air conditioner works when it wants to, your wipers need to be replaced, you get a popped tire.
Roller coasters need their wheels changed, and have sensors that ensure nobody goes near the track and the trains are all there. Sometimes, the wheel’s coating falls apart without anybody noticing, a bug lands on the sensor and confuses it, some sensor misreads the train speed. Machines aren’t perfect.
Rides break down every day. Evacuations happen at every park every day. Evacuations occur not because the guests are in death’s shadow, but because after a certain amount of time, if the ride can’t be restarted immediately, the ride operations feels it’s better to go through the relative inconvenience of taking them off.
For some rides, though, evacuations are an extremely difficult experience. New rides, which might not have established evacuation procedures can delay an evacuation. On the other hand, these rides can automatically force an evacuation because its bugs are not well known to the park’s maintenance department and would take longer to work out.
And then there’s the rides whose manufacturer decided to not include evacuation aids. Most roller coasters have stairs within reach of a train on a lift hill. Certain rides do not. Drop towers and other tower rides generally do not include such aids. Some roller coasters, while rare, also do not.
The fatal or morbid accidents that make national headlines that aren’t rider or ride errors are few and far between. While those are the most terrifying, it’s the park that’s putting its precious public image on the line when events unfold. They pay large amounts of money to make sure their rides are maintained, and maintained well, but they can’t control every event.
According the National Safety Council Fixed Site Amusement Ride Injury Study, 290.1 million people attended parks in the United States in 2010. Of those 290.1 million people, they experienced 1.7 billion rides. 1,207 injuries were ride related, and of those, only 59 were considered “serious.” That is, they required an overnight stay in a hospital.
Got your calculator ready? That’s 59 out of 1.7 billion rides. 0.000000347% of rides result in a serious injury. 0.000071% of rides (or 1,207 out of 1.7 billion) results in any injury (such as bruises or a splinter). Those are small numbers. That translates to the fact that 1 out of every 1.4 million riders will receive an injury – not even a serious one. On the other hand, 1 in every 98 people will die in a car accident, also according to the National Safety Council.