Just in time for amusement park season, researchers found in a new study that nearly 93,000 emergency room visits in children from 1990 through 2010 were due to an injury from an amusement park ride. More than 70 percent occurred during May through September, according to the findings published Wednesday in the journal Clinical Pediatrics.
Coin-operated rides at the local mall or indoor arcades may not be any safer, the researchers found, and parents should be aware of injury risks and take certain precautions.
"We didn’t want to come across as being alarmist," said co-author Dr. Gary Smith, a pediatric injury researcher at Nationwide Children's Center in Columbus, Ohio. "But we did want to make parents and policy makers aware that 20 children a day are treated in the emergency room for amusement park injuries during the warm weather months."
Most of those injuries were sprains, bruises, fractures, and mild concussions, and only 2 percent were severe enough to require admission to the hospital.
Examining anonymous medical records from a national injury surveillance database, the researchers couldn't identify which rides were the riskiest. Merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, and bumper cars accounted for about one-third of the injuries, but the other two-thirds were due to rides that weren't identified in the medical records.
The incompleteness of the study data, Smith said, points to a clear need for "better surveillance." He'd also like to see uniform safety standards for these rides. Currently, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates only mobile rides set up in strip malls, restaurants, or fairs. States have jurisidiction over fixed rides in amusement parks, and many states have few, if any, regulations at all.
Massachusetts has some of the strictest laws, requiring amusement rides to be licensed and regularly inspected by the state Department of Public Safety. Whether this has led to fewer injuries in the state isn't known, however, since the study didn't look at injury rates by state.
What the researchers did find was that 33 percent of injuries occurred on a fixed-site ride, followed by 29 percent on mobile rides, and 12 percent on mall rides. Falling off the ride or hitting against the ride were the most frequent causes of injury; kids also got their fingers, arms or legs stuck in a ride part or got a piece of clothing caught, which caused them to be dragged by the ride.
Surprisingly, 7 percent of injuries occurred simply from a child getting on or off the ride the wrong way.
It's impossible to avoid any risk from amusement park rides—just like it's impossible to eliminate all risks from biking, riding in a car, or walking down the street. But parents can take certain precautions. Here's what Smith recommended.
1. Follow height, age, weight, and health restrictions posted at the entrance to the ride. Children who don't meet the minimum height requirements may be more likely to slip out from the safety straps; those who are too big for the ride may be more likely to get trapped or caught in the latching mechanisms.
2. Listen to the attendants when they're giving loading and unloading instructions. Be especially careful on rides that continuously move on a conveyor belt, expecting kids to board them while the ride is in motion.
3. Instruct kids to keep hands and feet inside the ride at all times. As tempting as it may be to touch the dangling flower or Disney character, kids need to keep their hands to themselves.
4. Know your child. "Age restrictions are proxy measures for child development," Smith said, "but parents usually know best if their child is ready for a scary ride." Those who have any hesitation about whether their child is developmentally ready should err on the side of caution and have the child skip the ride.
5. Trust your instincts. If the ride looks unsafe, keep your child off of it. That may apply to seemingly safe-looking rides such as a moving horse on a carousel that's missing safety straps. "Holding onto them can be fine," Smith said, "but if you have another child to watch who could dart off at any moment, it's probably not a good idea."