How safe are carnival rides?

Posted May 23

An anguished Nebraska mother is urging parents not to let their children go on carnival rides after her daughter was seriously injured. What do safety statistics say about the risk, and what can parents do to ensure their children are safe? (Deseret Photo)

As summer approaches, throngs of thrill seekers will converge on state fairs and parking-lot carnivals. While the food is the primary attraction for most fair-goers, more than half will go on at least one ride, the industry estimates.

But recent headlines have some parents questioning whether carnival rides are worth the risk. In the past few weeks, one child was scalped when her hair was caught in a spinning ride in Nebraska; another died when she and two friends were thrown from a popular attraction in Texas.

The tragedies have spooked both parents and ride operators at the start of the carnival and fair season. But industry officials insist that such accidents are exceeding rare, and government statistics suggest they are right. Fewer than 1 percent of people injured on an amusement ride require overnight hospitalization, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which analyzes emergency-room data from hospitals across the country.

And the chance of serious injury on a ride is one in 9 million, according to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association.

That's no comfort to the family of Samantha Aguilar, the 16-year-old honor student who died April 30 when she was thrown from a Scrambler-type ride outside a Catholic church in El Paso, Texas.

Or to Elizabeth “LuLu” Gilreath, the 11-year-old who faces a grueling recovery and possibly lasting vision and nerve damage from the loss of her scalp, which occurred when her long hair became ensnared in a ride called the “King’s Crown” at a carnival in Omaha, Nebraska, May 7.

These accidents are under investigation by local and federal officials, and LuLu’s mother has urged parents to keep their children away from rides. But she is unlikely to discourage millions of people who will head to fairs and carnivals this summer and willingly climb into metal cages and capsules that rock, spin and hurl.

And despite the recent headlines, fair operators assure families that the glittery attractions are safe.

“If the industry — not only the ride industry, but the fair industry — is not diligent in making safety the top priority, we will eventually not have any product that will appeal to people. Safety is our top priority,” said Gary Goodman, general manager of the South Carolina State Fair.

“Accidents happen. But we take every major precaution,” said Goodman, whose midway has not had a serious injury in the 31 years he has been with the fair.

Amusement-ride manufacturers and operators say up to 80 percent of accidents occur because of something the rider did, not because the ride malfunctioned. This suggests that families should review best safety practices before heading off to a carnival or fair.

You don’t need a picture

For starters, leave the selfie stick at home, said Robert W. Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, based in Winter Park, Florida.

Americans’ obsession with taking pictures of themselves has led to a ban on selfie sticks on rides at both traveling carnivals and fairs, as well as amusement parks like Disney and Six Flags. (And they mean business; a roller coaster at Disney California Adventure was shut down for two hours earlier this month after a rider pulled one out mid-ride.)

Photography of any kind can be dangerous. Johnson said that in one case, a man was ejected from a roller coaster when he leaned outside of the car to take a picture.

"Cellphones and photos and selfies can be problems on rides, not only because of people taking pictures, but because they fall out of people’s pockets and could injure people on the ground,” Johnson said.

Although no one has suggested that the girls recently injured did anything to cause the accidents, “a very high percentage” of injuries occur when someone is “misbehaving or doing something that they shouldn’t,” he said.

That could involve standing up on a seated ride, rocking a capsule or seat, or hanging a limb out of the ride. Even the fun of throwing up your hands on a roller coaster is something Johnson discourages, saying while he enjoys the thrill of a ride, he’s a “white-knuckle” rider who like to hold on. To help children enjoy carnivals safety, the OABA has produced a video, featuring children sharing safety tips.

Height matters

Kathy Fackler became an advocate for ride safety after her 5-year-old son lost part of his foot on a Disney roller coaster in March 1998. On the website she started,, she stresses the importance of posted height requirements for rides.

They’re important because no safety restraint, no matter how well made, will work on a body too small for it. Accident reports show that children who barely meet the minimal height are at greater risk for falls and ejections.

And Fackler, who has since retired from public advocacy, says minimum-height limits for many rides are already “dangerously low.” (A typical height requirement is 42 inches to ride a carousel alone; 46 inches for a Tilt-A-Whirl; 48 inches for a Ferris wheel, according to Amusements of America guidelines.)

It's also important for parents to talk to their children about the importance of keeping their hands and feet inside the ride, and to sit still and not try to exit until the ride has come to a complete stop.

And parents should never insist a reluctant child board a ride. “When a child gets scared, her first impulse is to get away from whatever frightens her. When asked what they should do if they get scared while a ride is moving, a class of 20 preschoolers answered ‘get off the ride.’ Children are hurt every year doing exactly that,” the Saferparks website says.

The Council for Amusement and Recreational Equipment Safety seconds that, saying people should be "conservative and realistic" when deciding whether to get on a ride.

"Most thrill rides are, by their very nature, physically demanding and emotionally intense," the council says. Also, it notes, "small, thin riders and obese riders may be at higher risk of ejection in rides that rely on lap restraints."

The most dangerous ride

In a study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics in 2013, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, analyzed emergency-room visits between 1990 and 2010 related to amusement rides.

There were an average of 4,423 such visits each year, with an annual injury rate of 6.24 injuries per 100,000 children. About 1.5 percent of injuries required hospitalization.

The most dangerous ride proved to be the childhood favorite, the merry-go-round.

More than 20 percent of injuries occurred on a carousel, compared to 10 percent on roller coasters and 4 percent on bumper cars.

However, the injuries reported were not just at state and county fairs, but venues that included shopping malls. So the number of injuries that occur at fairs are even smaller — although they escalate to one every three days between May and September, the peak fair and carnival season.

And permanent carousels at malls produce more injuries than those on traveling midways.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that there were 4,800 injuries from mobile amusement rides in 2015, up from 4,500 in 2014 and 4,300 in 2013, according to spokeswoman Patty Davis. ( The numbers were likely higher, as there were also nearly 6,000 each year from "unknown site or ride type.")

There were more injuries at fixed sites — like malls or amusement parks — than at mobile fairs, carnivals and festivals. This contradicts charges that the mobile rides are less safe because they are frequently dismantled and moved by minimum-wage workers.

A 2013 report prepared by the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law analyzed the role of migrant workers in the fair and carnival industry and charged that many work in “near-slave conditions.”

The authors interviewed Mexicans who had been hired for temporary work at fairs in Maryland and Virginia. All had H2-B visas to work in the fair and carnival industry. Many reported they worked 80 to 100 hours a week, often in oppressive heat.

"Carnival rides are dismantled at the completion of the last day of a fair at a given location, which typically requires ride operators to work through the night disassembling rides in addition to their regular 12- to 14-hour workdays," the report said.

Johnson said that the nature of traveling midways requires swift turnaround, and that carnivals and fairs must rely on migrant workers because they can't find enough Americans willing to sign on to jobs with the harsh travel schedule and portable housing for eight to 10 months. But it's not true that the workers are unskilled, he said, since 75 to 80 percent of them return every year.

And each ride is inspected, sometimes multiple times, before a fair or carnival opens for business, he said.

Davis, the spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said her agency works with the amusement industry and other safety organizations to devise industry-wide standards for mobile rides.

The states are responsible for inspections, and sometimes insurers send their own inspectors too. The ride on which LuLu was injured, the King's Crown, had been inspected two weeks earlier, said Grace Johnson, public information officer for the Nebraska Department of Labor.

State agencies and federal officials are looking into both recent accidents, but have not speculated publicly about what might have caused the tragedies.

In some cases, the CPSC will issue a bulletin demanding that fair operators pull rides from operation until a problem is addressed. It did that in 2004 when one person died and two were injured in Massachusetts.

They were on the Sizzler, the same ride that the El Paso teen was on before she died.


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