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Nevertheless, the Mobarskys of the world account for only a portion of the body types at risk from roller coasters, safety advocates say. The average lap bar will fit midsize adults quite well, but small teenagers also board at their own peril. "It's great for people who are 170 pounds," says Kathy Fackler, founder of Safer Parks, "but the farther away you get from that, the ride ain't going to work for you So if they don't restrict people beyond those ranges, [staying in the ride] is just luck, sort of."
The parks say any ejection from a roller coaster--especially when the passenger isn't trying to jump out -- is a fluke. To back themselves up, they cite studies such as a 2002 report released by the state of Florida, which showed 76 percent of amusement-park accidents were directly attributable to "patron error."
Yet "error" -- or rider misbehavior, as the parks often call it -- is hard to define. For example, AstroWorld tells roller-coaster passengers to keep their hands on shoulder harnesses and restraint bars. In fact, the park accused Sam of breaking that rule aboard the Mindbender. But AstroWorld's own 2004 Park Map serves as a hopelessly debauched role model: Kids plunge down rides while blithely waving their arms in the air.
Fackler says a closer analysis of the injuries shows riders might not be the villains the parks suggest. State regulators in New Jersey keep the most detailed records in the nation on amusement-park injuries, dividing the accidents into five categories. Comprising the overwhelming majority in 2000 were accidents classed as inadvertent rider mishaps. "If somebody accidentally bumps their head on a ride, that's an inadvertent rider mishap," says E.J. Miranda, spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Those accidents accounted for 84 percent of injuries, while just 1 percent were due to rider misbehavior.
Even with no help from riders whatsoever, the parks still commit blunders. Mechanical failure and operator error accounted for 4 percent of accidents in New Jersey. And New Jersey has "some of the toughest regulations out there," Fackler says. Ride problems in Texas are harder to classify because regulators don't analyze the causes of theme-park injuries. But at AstroWorld, egregious mistakes aren't hard to find:
On the Texas Tornado roller coaster in 1998, a six-car train had nearly reached the top of the first hill when smoke began wafting from the track. The coaster lost its grip on the chain lift, slid back down the hill into the loading station and crashed into a fully occupied train. Seven people went to the hospital and at least two sued after developing neck and back problems.
More recently, Brandon Jones was injured while riding the Texas Cyclone when a 12-foot, two-by-six-inch board fell off the wooden coaster's scaffolding and hit him in the head. Another passenger aboard the ride told ABC13 Eyewitness News last year that someone on a previous train had warned the attendants about a loose board, but the park kept the coaster running anyway.
The lack of action seems almost excusable compared to the gung-ho snap of Kevin Froelich and Deanna Lee, ride attendants in 2000 at the Tidal Wave. A flume designed to plunge passengers down a series of slides in a small boat, the Tidal Wave was dependent upon a stream of pumped water. When an alarm signaled that the water level had fallen, the attendants overrode the warnings, a lawsuit alleged, and loaded a boat with Michael and Laine Dominice and their son, Troy. The Dominices were drifting toward the final drop-off when the water slowed to a trickle and their craft was stranded. Froelich and Lee decided to push the boat over the precipice. The Dominices were severely injured in the fall and, through their lawsuit, recovered $150,000.
A spokesman for AstroWorld says such incidents are exceptions. "I can tell you 99.99 percent of our guests enjoy a safe and fun visit at our parks," says public relations Manager Daryl Freedman. "So it's extremely rare [to suffer an injury], especially if it's something that might be ride-related."
But pinning down the true accident rate at AstroWorld is tough. The Texas Department of Insurance reports 329 people have been injured at the park since 1988, when the state began requiring parks to report injuries that result in medical treatment. But the state has no way of knowing how often the parks hide injuries. And apparently AstroWorld is at least occasionally inclined to illegally conceal them. Three people were sent to the hospital when the board fell from the Texas Cyclone last year, for example, but not a single injury on the ride shows up that year in the state's accident tally.
Over the past 36 years, AstroWorld has learned a lot about protecting its image.
Judge Roy Hofheinz, former Astros owner and Houston mayor, opened the park in 1968 to great fanfare. The first attraction of its kind in Houston, AstroWorld sported a Ferris wheel, the Astroneedle and a jungle boat ride, but according to many enthusiasts, the park never reached the upper orbits of amusement-park glory until it added the Texas Cyclone, its oldest full-size roller coaster.
"The Texas Cyclone is the classic woody," says Mike Robinson, a local coaster fanatic who visits parks nationwide and posts ride photos on his Web site. "When it opened in 1976, it was the best coaster on the planet."