Sunday, July 18, 2010

Girl Dies on Spanish Amusement Park Ride

A 15-year-old girl died Saturday evening at the Tibidabo amusement park in Barcelona, Spain when a mechanical arm on "El Pendulo" ride broke and the basket holding passengers fell onto another ride below.  Three other people were injured, two of them seriously.

It happens that on Saturday evening I was at the home of some good friends who are major theme park enthusiasts.  In fact, we spent part of the evening watching excerpts from "Bert the Conqueror," a show on the Travel Channel featuring a man who travels the country trying out various challenges and local thrills.  Very often this includes riding scary amusement park rides, and that's mostly what we watched last night.  In an episode where he visits Cedar Point (which is as close to a "local" theme park as we have here in the Ann Arbor area), he sizes up a particularly terrifying ride and says, "They have regulations, right?  It has to be safe."

That line was ringing through my head as I read about the Barcelona accident today.  Those of us who enjoy the occasional thrill ride rely on the fact that reputable amusement parks inspect their rides carefully.  That is what enables us to enjoy the death-defying feeling of the rides while still being confident that we will, in fact, defy death. 

El Pendulo was inspected in June and judged to be safe.  Obviously, by yesterday, it wasn't safe anymore.  This is exactly what is not supposed to happen at amusement parks.  If death on thrill rides was all that common, very few people would ride them.  The industry relies on this sort of thing not happening for its very existence.

This young lady is not the first person ever to die on a ride at an amusement park, and she unfortunately will not, most likely, be the last.  So where does that leave folks who like amusement parks?  How do we manage to get on the more extreme rides and enjoy them when something like this can happen? 

There are two possibilities.  First, we can decide that it's not worth it, or that a particular type of ride which we perceive as being particularly dangerous is not worth it.  There are rides I still won't go on because my mom wouldn't let me go on them following an accident when I was a child.  I know that was 30 years ago and changes have been made, but the imprint that certain rides are dangerous remains. 

The second possibility is that we can take this single incident and add it to the mental model we have of amusement park safety.  If we do that well, we recognize that a single death does not tilt the scales all that much when you consider the millions of people who don't die at amusement parks every day.  Death on a thrill ride is possible, but it is not likely.  According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the chances of a serious injury on a "fixed-site" (as opposed to mobile carnival) ride is about 1 per 21 million rides taken.

The second possibility may be the logical one, but it is not the one you should expect of yourself the day after an accident like this.  That's particularly true if you are contemplating riding a ride very similar to El Pendulo, if you're at the Tibidabo park, and certainly if you witnessed the accident.  Trauma messes up our gut instincts about what is possible and what is likely.  It's very natural to start out going with the first possibility -- deciding that it isn't worth it.  Most of us move to the second, perhaps without the actual statistics but with a general understanding, in time.


Colleen said...

At one point, in Massachusetts, only moveable carnival rides were inspected, and fixed site ones were not. I discovered that just before a small, local park had a major accident. I think (hope!) it has changed.

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