How Roller Coasters Work

Safety Tips for a First-timer

roller coasters
Canadian news reporter Katrina Clarke (right) conquers her fear of roller coasters by riding Canada's tallest and fastest, Leviathan. Randy Risling/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

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?


According to the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions, there were 372 million visits to 400 amusement parks across the United States in 2016, and 1.7 billion rides were enjoyed [source: IAAPA]. The organization says that the chance of being injured on a fixed-site ride at one of those parks is 1 in 17 million, calculated over a three-year average.

According to the National Weather Service , you are more likely to be struck by lightning at odds of 1 in 775,000 [source: IAAPA]. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, your chances of dying in a car crash are even higher, with 37,461 lives lost on United States roadways in 2016, representing an increase of 5.6 from the previous year [source: NHTSA].

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, pregnant) 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.

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 explained 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. The 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 are extremely rare. 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 and 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 that follow.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • "Amusement Ride Safety." International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. (April 28, 2018)
  • Birket Engineering. (April 28, 2018)
  • Birket Engineering. (April 28, 2018) http://www.birket.comKopytoff, Verne G. "Roller Coasters Take a Ride From Wild To Wired." The New York Times. August 20, 1998. (April 28, 2018)
  • Levine, Arthur. "The 10 Tallest Roller Coasters in the World." TripSavvy. March 27, 2018. (April 28, 2018)
  • "Materials Used in Roller Coasters." AZo Materials. April 24, 2015. (April 28, 2018)
  • "Materials Used in Roller Coasters." AZo Materials. April 24, 2015. (April 28, 2018)"Risks of riding roller coasters for people with heart disease." Medical News Today. Nov. 21, 2005. (April 28, 2018)
  • Roller Coaster DataBase. (April 28, 2018)
  • "USDOT Releases 2016 Fatal Traffic Crash Data." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. October 6, 2017. (April 28, 2018)