Thrills and Chills

updated 07/31/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/2000 01:00AM

They are two of the most familiar sounds of summer: the anticipatory click-click-click of an ascending roller coaster and the collective shriek on the drop down. But as amusement park attendance heats up—300 million thrill seekers are expected to storm the country's 750 parks by year's end—so do concerns about safety. Last year, six people died in amusement park accidents, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that another 9,200 were injured in 1998.

That number would be smaller, says independent safety consultant Richard McClary, if inspection laws were tougher and park attendees less foolhardy. A member of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, McClary, 69, lives in Memphis with his wife, Alicia, 67, a professor of preventative medicine at the University of Tennessee-Memphis; they raised five daughters. He spoke with correspondent Champ Clark about the hazards of high-speed family entertainment.

Have amusement parks in the United States become more dangerous?

We don't really know, because we don't have a complete and accurate required reporting system. But my sense is that on the whole, they are no more unsafe than they were 10 to 15 years ago. Most rides, in most places, remain safe for most people.

Why do there seem to be more accidents?

The amusement industry is growing at a tremendous pace. As the industry grows and people demand more elaborate and exciting machinery, the odds of a serious accident become greater. A monster attraction like the 310-ft.-high Millennium Force coaster at Cedar Point in Ohio has a tremendous safety record, but how much can the human body take?

What are the most common types of injuries?

Most are relatively minor—anything from a split lip from the lap bar to a pinched finger to a sore neck. The more common serious ones we see are usually back and neck injuries. Pregnant women, people with back problems and those who have recently undergone surgery need to be careful, and a good amusement park will have warning signs as to who should or shouldn't take part in the fun.

How do riders affect their own safety?

Each of us has a certain amount of responsibility. Every roller coaster says "Please keep your arms inside the car and remain seated." But the first thing you do when it gets to the top is throw your hands up. I've done it. Also, alcohol plays a big part. So many parks serve beer. Alcohol and rides just don't mix.

What's your biggest concern?

Traveling carnivals. Usually the equipment is older. In many cases they hire untrained people to put the rides together and to operate them.

How can you tell if a ride is safe?

Look at it. Is it dirty, greasy? Are there parts lying around? Watch the ride. Listen to it. If something doesn't sound right, don't get on.

Aren't these rides inspected?

Not always. Not every state has an inspection system, and standards differ among those that do. Most permanent theme parks are self-policed.

Are some rides more dangerous than others?

Not necessarily. We've had fatalities on a merry-go-round. They have those little shoulder straps, and children fall off and hang themselves. If a park is doing a good job, though, all the rides are going to be relatively safe.

What if you feel unsafe and you are already on the ride?

If you can get the operator's attention, he or she can stop the ride. But if you've got to stand up, you could be creating a very dangerous situation.

What about kids?

Parents should not force a child on a ride they don't want to get on. This is not only cruel, it's dangerous.

Do you ride?

Yes. I love it. We've got one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the country here in Memphis. It was Elvis Presley's favorite. He would rent the whole park after it closed just to ride this roller coaster. It's my favorite too.

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