How Roller Coasters Work

Safety Tips for a First-timer
The Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Ohio, the world's second- highest and fastest coaster
The Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Ohio, the world's second- highest and fastest coaster
Paul M. Walsh/Associated Press

So, you're finally taking the plunge. For years, you've been playing it safe on the bumper cars and kiddie rides, but now you're ready to try the real deal -- a coast­er. Once you're in line, though, the bloodcurdling screams coming from the ride could make you think you're about to put your life at risk. You might want to turn around and head back to the carousel.

But really, how dangerous are roller coasters?

­First of all, it's important to know that the numbers are on your side. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, 335 million people visited U.S. theme parks in 2006 [Source: IAAPA]. A study that year by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that around 6,500 people seek medical attention every year for injuries at theme parks (this includes non-ride injuries). Of that number, about 130 required overnight hospitalization, making your risk of serious injury -- just from stepping into the park -- about one in 25 million. The chance of a fatal injury at a theme park is one in 1.5 billion [Source: CPSC]. By comparison, the chance of fatal injury in a car crash is almost 15 in 10,000 [Source: U.S. Department of Transportation].

In 2003, the Brain Injury Institute of America released a study that concluded, in part, that "The risk of brain injury from a roller coaster is not in the rides, but in the rider" [Source: Brain Injury Institute of America]. Of the six fatal injuries the study examined, all had been caused by previously undetected brain conditions.

Basically, use common sense. If you have, or think you might have, any of the conditions posted on the warning signs (i.e., high blood pressure, heart disease or heart condition, pregnancy) don't get on the ride. If you've been consuming alcohol or if you don't meet the height and weight requirements, you are putting yourself at risk by riding a roller coaster.

A worker inspects the X-Flight roller coaster at Geauga Lake, Ohio.
Scott Heckel/Associated Press

Once you've made it into the coaster car, you'll be secured by one of two basic restraint systems: a lap bar or some variation of an over-the-shoulder harness. Don't be alarmed if you're getting on a loop-the-loop coaster with a lap bar -- as we saw earlier, inertia would keep you in your seat even with no restraints!

The restraint system -- and everything else on a roller coaster -- is completely computer-controlled. Programmable logic controllers, usually three of them, monitor every aspect of a coaster's operations. They regulate the ride's speed, ensure that trains never come too close to one another, and alert human operators to technical glitches or track obstructions. There is no possibility that, say, the ride would leave the station with an unsecured safety belt or that an attendant would forget to apply the coaster's brake. All coasters are carefully inspected on a daily basis and completely worked over during the park's off-season.

Even armed with all these facts, you'll probably still be a little nervous. Just remember that roller coasters are designed to give you a thrill -- to make you feel like you're in danger, if only for a few seconds. So just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride!

For much more information on roller coasters and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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