Amusement ride safety: who “does” it?

There is considerable diversity from jurisdiction to jurisdiction about portable carnival ride inspection. However no rides go uninspected. Every time a portable amusement ride is assembled, the crew will inspect […]

There is considerable diversity from jurisdiction to jurisdiction about portable carnival ride inspection. However no rides go uninspected. Every time a portable amusement ride is assembled, the crew will inspect at construction. The crew will also make daily inspections of points designated for daily inspection by the manufacturer. There are often additional periodic inspections by consultants. Some fair boards hire their own inspectors for an independent layer of protection. The insurer may also send an inspector. Some inspectors call in additional inspectors to perform specialized tests.

The main difference between jurisdictions is in relation to independent inspection by capable inspectors working for the taxpayers.

Some jurisdictions have event-by-event statutory inspections, but many jurisdictions have annual statutory inspections. That does not necessarily translate to inspection only once a year: a ride that travels through multiple jurisdictions will have a third party inspection in each of them that requires annual inspection.

An annual base frequency is not necessarily inadequate. The goal is to ensure that there will be an inspection by a person with sufficient expertise and good judgement in the time between when a defect just becomes noticeable and the time when it becomes an imminent failure.

It is important to be realistic about what can be detected by each type of inspection. Even a statutory inspection is only a visual inspection. Many rides require additional inspection using specialized equipment, called Non-Destructive Testing (NDT), such as ultrasound or magnetic particle or fluorescent penetrant testing, to check for defects below the surface of materials. As much or more than a single missing fastener, that type of defect can result in serious structural or mechanical failure. The statutory inspector will examine the certification by the NDT technician to verify that the owner has had the required tests performed on schedule and that acceptable results were received.

Inspectors who are conscious that they are performing an annual inspection will generally perform a thorough visual examination of the conditions of the device and determine whether it requires any corrective action at that point, and whether the owner has demonstrated a reliable program of ongoing inspection and appropriate maintenance in relation to any deterioration that would foreseeably develop over the year. Verifying that all the fasteners are put back each time the ride moves is clearly not accomplished by an annual inspection. The annual inspector can only determine whether the owner demonstrates that there is a process likely to ensure that proper assembly and maintenance happens.

A statutory inspection is a safety net in case of an irresponsible operator that doesn’t have the good judgement to carry out the inspection and maintenance specified by the manufacturer and necessitated by the conditions of the ride, to be sure no wear or damage has developed, and to ensure all the fasteners are put back in when the ride is reassembled after a move. For responsible operators, the statutory inspector is a colleague with whom to exchange information that enhances safety in general, and an objective perspective that can validate the effectiveness of their program.

Ride failure occurs so rarely that it requires extensive knowledge and experience to be able to tell which conditions are very early indicators of deterioration or even just cosmetic and which conditions are actual defects that could cause imminent harm. Access to a network of inspectors to share knowledge is a significant asset to developing that expertise. The network comes together at inspectors’ continuing education seminars, hosted by NAARSO, AIMS and TSSA for example, and also on the midway during the construction stage when inspectors from the show, the insurer, the fair board, the statutory agencies and others come together.

The most important thing for patrons to remember is that riders need to follow posted and announced ride rules. The rules reflect the assumptions the ride designer made and a ride may not be safe for a rider that deviates from the rules. Parents or mature companions need to carefully monitor children who are too young to understand rules or resist impulses or cope with fear and excitement. That means paying attention to the child’s reactions, not just sitting beside them enjoying the ride.

Fairgoers should also be aware of the guest relations desk for the midway and visit them to report concerns about the conditions on a ride or the condition of the operator on duty. In many cases, that can be a better option than leaving the information with the operator at the ride who may misunderstand the importance of what the guest is reporting or not have the same impression of the urgency. Members of the public can also report serious concerns to the responsible government agency, who in many jurisdictions may send an inspector.

Things are not always as they seem to the patron. Part of the “theatre” of thrill rides is to seem scary without actually being dangerous. It can be hard for the public to differentiate what is dangerous and what just seems that way. A lot of portable rides cover a lot of miles in a season and can sustain superficial cosmetic damage that may have no safety implications at all. Rarely a ride may stop and strand riders up in the air waiting to be evacuated when the safety backup systems have worked exactly as intended. However if a ride starts making a funny noise, if lap bars or doors do not latch securely or seat belts are broken, or many people getting off the ride seem to be uncomfortable, a smart rider might give a ride a second thought or pass along the concern to the guest relations desk.

Rider error is overwhelmingly identified in the majority of rider injuries. Among media reports of rider injury, mechanical and structural failure is more often linked to serious harm, although that could simply be that ride failure without serious harm doesn’t attract as much media attention.

One problem that I have found through my research is that even quite thorough accident reports don’t usually collect much information about the factors that might have led to the rider errors, and making much more headway on preventing those will require more information.

Research observations we have done on the midway point to rider motivations to increase the ride sensation, socialize with companions, and conserve effort and property, and the focus on those goals can potentially cause riders to lose sight of following rules and staying out of harm’s way. Riders seem to be aware of the rules but may not realize that now is the time to apply them, or think that the rule is applicable to other more vulnerable riders, not themselves. Some riders may be unclear how, specifically, to comply with rules like “ride responsibly”.

Some of the unsafe rider behaviours occur because riders are attempting to make the ride more exciting. We live in an era where the norm is to explore boundaries and invent new uses of technology. Many portable rides were designed in a different era, when mastering the “correct” use of technology was the hallmark of proficiency. One thing that interests me is considering how classic rides could be modified to cater to the contemporary audience, to make it less tempting to deviate from rules. Newly designed theme park rides often already incorporate these principles.¬†As awareness of human engineering grows, the ride analysis step of ride design may be able to better anticipate human response to different ride experiences, in the same way human engineering has benefited pilot performance, medical safety, driver behaviour and other safety critical activities.

About Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.