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For roller coasters, gravity rules!

And could mean nasty bruises on the brain for riders

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

By Kimi Yoshino and Caitlin Liu, The Los Angeles Times

There is no other thrill quite like it. Nothing that plummets you, hurtles you, twists you and turns you at the speeds and dizzying heights of the newest generation of roller coasters.

Amusement park engineers design the swings, flips and drops to create the illusion of risk. But as rides have become bigger, faster and scarier, doctors, regulators and lawyers are saying the danger isn't imaginary.

 
   

He loves 'em all

John Gasper is a huge coaster fan. He'll travel far and wide to ride one. Click here to read his story.

 
 

Even as millions are flocking to parks, critics of the rides contend that thrill-seekers' brains are being rattled around in their skulls, causing brain bleeds and tears that can result in permanent damage or death.

This fall, New Jersey is expected to set the nation's first legal limits on the gravitational force that amusement park rides can produce The industry is studying standards too, while contending that many of those injured have had pre-existing conditions, such as aneurysms.

Over the past several years, claims of brain injury from roller coasters have increased.

But does the industry downplay the risk of injury?

"At least when you are smoking, the cigarette [package] says you can get lung cancer," said Zipora Jacob, 49, a former genetics researcher who settled a lawsuit with Disneyland after alleging she suffered a brain hemorrhage on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride.

"When I went on that ride, nobody told me that I could have a brain injury. People should know. They have to beware that it's risky."

Industry representatives accuse plaintiffs' lawyers and regulators of hyping a small number of cases. They say roller coasters are safer than many forms of family entertainment, such as soccer on the weekends.

"If someone can find an activity that 320 million people do each summer that has less incidents, I'd really like to see what it is," said Gary Story, president of Six Flags Inc., which operates 38 amusement parks worldwide.

How many Gs?

Doctors and regulators examining the rash of claims are focusing on G-force, or the force of gravity, on roller coasters. The G-force can be measured by direction: up and down, forward and backward, or left to right. Of concern is how long the forces last and how quickly and radically they change, and whether the ride jolts back and forth abruptly, or suddenly speeds up or slows down.

One G-force equals the normal tug of gravity on the body. Two G-forces make a person feel twice as heavy as normal. As the G-force increases, it becomes harder for the heart to pump blood to the brain.

Zero G is weightlessness -- the sensation of floating -- and negative G gives the sensation of being pulled upward out of the seat.

Coaster enthusiasts' Web sites show that the 10 fastest coasters have been built in the past eight years. The record holder, Dondonpa in Japan, opened in December and travels 106.9 mph.

In 1994, roller coaster top speeds were 80 mph. Records for height, drop and angle of descent have also been shattered in the past several years. This year, Magic Mountain in Southern California opened X, a coaster whose cars can spin forward and backward 360 degrees. Combining speed and twisting tends to increase G-force, said ride engineer Steve Elliott.

Industry executives dispute whether today's rides expose customers to more G-force than those of past years. Although the coasters are higher, faster and loopier, technology also has made them smoother.

"If you look at rides today, you would see that the G-forces have actually come down from where they once were," said Story of Six Flags.

Blood clots and whiplash

Doctors who have studied injured patients say coasters can pose a risk. In an article in Neurology in January 2000, neurologist Toshio Fukutake chronicled the case of a 24-year-old Japanese woman who developed headaches and subdural hematomas -- blood clots -- after riding several large roller coasters at an amusement park in Japan.

"Riding giant roller coasters can cause chronic subdural hematoma even in a previously healthy woman," Fukutake concluded. "Builders and designers, managers of amusement parks, and potential passengers on giant roller coasters need to be aware of this risk."

In the United States, New Jersey will become the first state to set G-force limits for coaster designers and manufacturers when it finalizes its regulations in October.

"They had a free pass in the system, and we didn't think that was appropriate," said Bill Connolly, New Jersey's director of codes and standards.

New Jersey engineers determined that brain injuries are occurring -- along with a spate of back and neck injuries from the jolting, jerking rides and rapid changes in direction and speed.

"We think that the issue has currency, not just because it is something that needs to be done, but as rides get bigger and bigger and there's competition in the marketplace, they're exploring the edges of the envelope," Connolly said. "We really think there needs to be a line, someone taking a look at it on behalf of the public."

Under the proposed standards, front-to-back G-forces cannot exceed 5.6 for more than one second; and side-to-side G-forces cannot exceed 2.5 for more than a minute, although the figures can change, depending on the kinds of restraints.

The G-forces on Kennywood's 85 mph Phantom Revenge range from -1 to 5, said spokeswoman Mary Lou Rosemeyer. "Even though this ride goes faster than the Steel Phantom [the former coaster that had a top speed of 82 mph] it's so smooth. The technology is so much more advanced."

Cedar Point spokeswoman Janice Witherow would not release G-forces for individual rides, but said all of the park's 15 coasters, including the nation's fastest and tallest coaster, the 93 mph Millennium Force, have G-forces below 5.

Safety is closely monitored, she said. At least once a year, an outside firm tests the Cedar Point attractions with a bionic man they call "Fred" who is hooked up to a laptop computer as he rides. The dummy, much like those used in the auto industry, measures neck and head movement, G-forces and other factors of the ride.

Industry officials initially scoffed at New Jersey's efforts, calling the state unqualified to draft guidelines. Connolly said he got letters from parks telling him, "We know what we're doing. Leave us alone."

Now, an industry task force is working on its own set of regulations. Bret Lovejoy, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, hopes New Jersey will adopt the industry's standards.

In addition, Six Flags has commissioned a study on ride-related brain injuries by Neuro-Knowledge, a research program of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

The findings are not complete, but one panel member said Six Flags executives commissioned the study with "no strings attached" and said: "If there is a problem, we want to know about it."


Health Editor Virginia Linn contributed to this report.

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