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Fail Safe
Monday August 15, 2011

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Research helps plan trip

Before planning a trip to an amusement park or after entering, people with disabilities should research which rides are suited to them, said Jerry Aldrich, president of Amusement Industry Consulting in Orlando, Fla. One consideration for people who wear prostheses is which rides allow them. Many don’t for fear they could become dislodged. Here are some places to start:

• Brochures: Attributes needed to ride a particular ride maybe listed in the park literature.

• Websites: Most theme parks and mobile carnivals havetheir own websites and give dimensions of the rides, pictures and special considerations and restrictions. Riders also often offer comments or reviews.

• Guest services: Someone in this office will be able to giveanswers or find someone who knows them.

• Carnival or fair offices: These “show offices” usually arelocated on the midway. The owner has an office there, and a manager is expected to be accessible.

• YouTube: Riders often can get a feel for the dynamics ofthe ride with a posted video.


Safety restraints on amusement park and carnival thrill rides are designed for average bodies, so patrons who fall outside the physical norm because of amputations, birth defects, paralysis and other conditions need to be educated about the risks. Ride operators, who often are young and inexperienced, may not identify a potential problem until it’s too late.

An accident that killed a double-leg amputee when he was thrown from a roller coaster in New York has generated questions as to who should be able to ride which rides and how a rider or operator can determine whether the ride is safe for people with particular mental or physical conditions.

A state Labor Department investigation continues into the accident on the Ride of Steel that killed Army veteran Sgt. James Hackemer, 29, on July 8 at the Darien Lake Theme Park Resort east of Buffalo. But Genesee County Sheriff Gary Maha said in a press conference his department’s investigation found Hackemer did not have the physical attributes to be restrained on the ride, and the park violated its own policy by letting him board.

Hackemer lost his legs in a roadside bombing in Iraq in 2008 and had to be assisted onto the coaster. He was not wearing prostheses on the ride. The roller coaster was working properly, and Hackemer’s seat belt and lap bar were found locked into place after the accident, Maha said. The coaster is 208 feet tall and reaches speeds of 70 mph. Maha said no criminal charges will be filed against the park.

Warnings posted at entrances and exits

The risk was clearly stated for the Ride of Steel, Maha said. The signs read: “For the restraint devices on this ride to fully and safely engage, guests must have two legs and be within a certain range of size and physical dimension. In addition, guest must have sufficient body strength and the complete use of at least one arm and hand to hold onto the grab bar. No guests may ride holding anything or with artificial limbs attached.”

Each ride is different, and gravitational forces come in different strengths and in different directions. Ride designers know what body dimensions are safe for each ride, and warning signs are standard procedure for most rides at all sizes of amusement parks — spelling out the dangers for various conditions: pregnant riders, those with heart conditions or back pain, riders who don’t meet height requirements or who have a particular mental disorder, such as claustrophobia or panic attacks.

A patron sitting several seats behind Hackemer on the Ride of Steel that day told the Hornell (N.Y.) Evening Tribune, “The ride holds you in by the shins and thighs and a seat belt.”

All of the restraints must be used on each rider, said Jim Barber, independent ride inspector in New York and a representative of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials. Substituting one for another — say depending on a shoulder harness instead of a lap bar or a seat belt — is not acceptable.

“[Hackemer] could not properly be secured with the restraints on the ride and that should have been recognized if not by him, certainly by the operators. If you have multiple restraints that have to be used to retain people while the ride is in motion, then they all have to be used,” Barber said.

Who makes the call?

If a rider knows the risks and is determined to ride, where does responsibility lie? “There’s rider responsibility and there’s park responsibility, but quite frankly the park holds the upper hand,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., based in Cincinnati, and past president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “They can say who can and can’t ride. That might put them in a situation — and it has — where they get sued. But better to be sued than to have someone hurt or killed,” he said.

Parks have individual policies for evaluating rider safety and train ride operators accordingly, industry experts say. “Things have changed drastically in the last decade as far as the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] is concerned,” Speigel said, “and after this issue, it will change to a more stringent evaluation of who can and can’t ride.”

The ADA prohibits denying access to amusement park rides to a person with a disability unless the park can prove that allowing the person to ride would cause a direct threat of injury to others, said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which oversees enforcement of the ADA. That proof has to be documented, such as in a ride designer’s specifications.

The 2010 ADA standards cover only new stationary rides. They do not cover rides that are controlled by the rider, she added.

Decisions have to be made case by case, said Jerry Aldrich, president of Amusement Industry Consulting in Orlando, Fla. “I happened to be on a midway in Oregon last year. A guest was blind, and he insisted he had the right to put his service animal with him on the Zipper. The Zipper flips over, and the basket rotates. He kept insisting and the operator said no.

“At the same time, I’ve seen paraplegics who are athletes who are extremely strong and you end up allowing them to ride because it is safe for them to ride. There is no set rule,” he said.

One thing industry experts agree on is that if the operator says a ride’s not safe, it’s just not worth the risk to put up a fight. “Really and truly, you don’t want this young person changing their mind,” Aldrich said. “They may be more apt to change their mind than the owner/operator because they don’t have a dog in the fight. And that’s not always the best outcome.”

The Darien Lake accident was one of a very small number of such deaths. But the circumstances surrounding it sent shocks nationwide. “I don’t remember a situation like this, and I’ve been in the business for 50 years,” Speigel said. He and other industry insiders wondered whether the fact that Hackemer was a veteran may have played a part in the decision to allow him to ride. “Maybe they didn’t want to embarrass him,” Speigel said. •

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Monday August 15, 2011
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