Explainer: Why It’s Safe to Ride That Terrifying Roller-Coaster

Colleen O'Dea | July 22, 2014 | Explainer
Before the first person steps aboard a carnival ride, NJ has certified, registered, and inspected it, and made sure it complies with 137 pages of code

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Maybe your idea of summer fun is surviving an adrenaline-fueled ride on a stomach-churning roller coaster, only to do it all again — backward. Perhaps you’d prefer something a bit more sedate, like watching the waves break on the beach from the secure seat on a Ferris wheel. And for the truly faint of heart (and sound of mind), there’s always the carousel.

Regardless of your personal predilection, you’ll find it in New Jersey, which has roughly 4,000 amusement rides. Half are permanently installed at parks and boardwalks and the others can be moved to different locations as part of carnivals, which attract residents and tourists during the warm weather.

The state Department of Community Affairs is responsible for ensuring the safety of those rides by enforcing the 137-page Carnival-Amusement Rides code, revised last year. These are the major requirements:

Certification: A ride manufacturer must apply for certification in the state by providing drawings and proof that the ride complies with all state-specified safety rules. Typically, the state requires compliance with ASTM International standards. The rides must also include calculations for how they would withstand the worst-case environmental conditions, including winds and storms in New Jersey, and any limitations on those worst-case conditions.

Registration: Each year, owners of rides that have been certified for use within the state have to pay fee and register them with the state DCA. Officials with the state’s division of codes and standards review the rides to make sure they meet required safety standards. All operators also must carry at least $1 million in liability insurance per occurrence or a $1 million surety bond.

Inspection: Ride owners have to provide the state with proof that the ride has been tested and is safe. State inspectors perform an initial inspection each year before the ride can begin operating. During the season, inspectors may perform one or two unannounced operational inspections of rides to ensure they are working properly. During the off-season, rides are also subject to mechanical inspections to assess wear on parts that cannot be examined while a ride is fully assembled. Once a ride passes state inspection it gets a green sticker, while rides that have not passed receive a red sticker. Rides deemed to be unsafe are to be shut down until a reinspection can prove their safety.

Records: Ride owners have to keep records of ride maintenance and testing, required operator training on the ride, safety bulletins about the ride, and notices of any accidents and mechanical defects. All the records are also taken into consideration as part of inspections.

Rules: The code spells out a number of rules. The state classifies rides as either super, major, kiddie, or inflatable. Height restrictions are set based on recommendations by the manufacturer and nationally recognized sources, or if none are specified, for major or super rides, there is a minimum height requirement of 60 inches. There are specifications for headrests and restraints based on individual ride documentation, protocols for checking the height or weight of riders, as well as for operator training. There are some specific regulations governing bungee jumps, go-karts, water rides, climbing walls, inflatables, and the most daring rides — those with the highest of Gs.

Penalties: The state can revoke a ride permit for incompetence, negligence, operating a ride without authorization, submitting false information, or failing to tell the DCA of incidents. A $5,000 penalty could be assessed for each violation.