Are Australian theme park rides safe?

Reports in the news of Gold Coast theme park rides stopping are on the increase. It asks the question: are these attractions safe to ride?

Image: Parkz. Storm Coaster, Giant Drop, Wild West Falls and Arkham Asylum have all been the focus of media scrutiny over minor delays and stoppages this summer.

In a word: yes.

Theme park rides are absolutely, unequivocally safe.

So much of the unrelenting coverage of ride stoppages this summer is misguided, disingenuous or simply wrong. A ride that stops – in almost every circumstance – is operating safely and as intended.

Attractions at Australia's major theme parks are designed, constructed, maintained and operated to the highest safety standards. Government regulations are strict and insurance providers dictate only the safest maintenance and operation regimes.

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Since the early 1990s, Australia's major theme parks have exclusively sourced new rides from the world's leading – and safest – designers and manufacturers.

What are the statistics?

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions is the global industry trade group. Their 2015 Ride Incident Survey Report indicates a few key facts based on USA data:

Some 335 million guests safely enjoyed 1.6 billion rides at 400 USA amusement parks. The chance of being injured on a permanent ride at a USA amusement park is 1 in 16 million. Only 5.5 per cent of those injuries were classed as serious.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's statistics from 1990 to 2004 indicate that around five people die each year from both mobile and permanent ride injuries.

The chances of death on an amusement ride is 1 in 320 million, or 0.0000003125 per cent per ride.

For what it's worth, you're 320 times more likely to be struck by lightning. The chances of being struck by lightning in any given year in the USA is about one in a million, or 0.0001 per cent.

In another words, theme park rides are proven to be statistically safe. The instances of injury or death are significantly lower than almost any other recreational pursuit you can think of, from driving in a car to swimming at the beach.

Why do rides stop?

In almost every case reported in the media of late, the ride stoppage comes from systems operating exactly as they are designed. Rides are designed and built with numerous layers of safety in place that ensures that any anomaly in a system that monitors hundreds – or even thousands – of different aspects, will trigger a safe, gentle stop.

Modern rides are controlled by computer systems and make use of extensive sensors that track vehicles at all times. Think of a car dashboard – sensors throughout your car tell you whether you have your handbrake or lights on, if your oil level or tyre pressure is low and so on.

Rides are exactly the same, though they err on the side of caution and gracefully shut the system down if they detect anything unusual. A graceful stoppage ensures that vehicles come to a stop at points of the ride that allow it to restart and complete the circuit in the case of brief delays, or allow it to be safely evacuated from in the event of a longer stoppage.

A ride that is stopped isn't like a car on the side of the highway that won't start. It is almost always a computer system that has deliberately chosen to safely halt operations.

What about the evacuations?

That news footage of guests being escorted down the staircases that line roller coaster lift hills is a procedure that ride manufacturers build into their designs. It's a procedure so safe that walking up and down the Arkham Asylum lift hill is an activity available to guests as part of a behind-the-scenes tour at Warner Bros. Movie World.

What could trigger a stoppage?

Sensors along the course of a roller coaster to monitor vehicle locations can relay false readings. Rare occurences like a bird landing on or dust obscuring the sensor can send an incorrect signal; if the ride's system detects a conflict or anomaly between two sensors then it may initiate the procedure to bring the ride to a halt. 

You'll only ever see one vehicle on a single section of a roller coaster. This is because roller coasters have – for most of the last century – used block systems that ensures that vehicles on the track are isolated for instances like this, ensuring that each vehicle is brought to a safe stop in its own zone on the ride.

What about unplanned stoppages?

A power failure is the simplest way to imagine a ride coming to an unplanned stop. Brake systems on rides are designed to be failsafe such that a loss of power won't affect their ability to safely bring vehicles to a stop.

For example, Dreamworld's Giant Drop features no moving components in its magnetic braking system and requires no source of energy to function. It'll stop its gondolas on their descent from the top of the 119m tower smoothly and safely every single time.

Both the Giant Drop and Tower of Terror at Dreamworld utilise failsafe magnetic brakes to bring riders to a safe, smooth stop. This technology is standard on modern roller coasters and freefall rides.

Magnetic brakes use powerful fixed rare earth magnets through which an alloy fin passes. This motion generates an electromagnetic force that smoothly and reliably slows the vehicle. As there is no friction or contact involved, there is no wear on components and no chance of a failure.

How common are stoppages?

Ride stoppages are not infrequent, as evidenced by this summer's media coverage.

Rides are complicated pieces of infrastructure that rely on countless variables from many independent components, so it is not an uncommon occurrence not just on Australian rides, but on rides the world over. Far from being a terrifying ordeal, most people would find being on a ride during a stoppage somewhat dull.

On a daily basis, theme park rides undergo exhaustive maintenance checks and cycle through thousands of riders without delay.

Why all the coverage?

An unprecedented freak accident at Dreamworld that claimed four lives put theme park safety into the minds of the public and gave the media a thirst for covering every single ride stoppage. It will be remembered for years to come as a blight on the otherwise exemplary safety record of an Australian institution.

The ensuing coverage however has long since deviated from covering this tragedy and delved into giving attention to truly insignificant theme park happenings.

The stories seem to gain traction: after all they apply sensationalism to an activity that is generally considered wholesome and family oriented. The heightened coverage has also made everyday guests a journalist armed with a smartphone and social media, hoping to capture a ride doing anything they think it shouldn't be doing.

And so a vicious feedback loop of public interest and media scrutiny continues.

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