Roller Coaster Mechanics

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Roller coasters are gravity driven devices. Many people don’t give their safety, let alone the mechanics of roller coasters, a second thought when going to an amusement park and boarding a ride. The main reason for this is we trust that amusement parks, as well as the companies that manufacture, design, and test roller coasters, keep a close eye on safety. However, as an industry that lacks a solid federal safety regulation system, amusement parks and thrill rides may not deserve consumers’ trust.

Roller Coaster Basic Information

Individuals who ride roller coasters put their lives in the hands of complex devices that aren’t strictly regulated for safety and are comprised of mechanics that can be unreliable. Being aware of how a roller coaster operates is important for consumers so that they aren’t kept in the dark any longer about the potential risks they may face.

Initially, the train, or car, is hauled up a long hill by a chain. This is the only portion of the ride that is powered. At the top of the hill, the train disconnects from the chain, plummets down the opposite side of the hill, gaining speed all the way. The energy from the run down the hill propels the train around the rest of the track, through curves and up and down smaller hills, perhaps even through loops and spirals, until returning to the station at the end of the track.

Some newer coasters pull the train up the hill with a cable, but the high thrill coasters “launch” the train at very high speeds, up to 100 mph, to go over a very tall hill.

All roller coasters share the potential for various types of failures and subsequent rider injuries, but then again, each type has its own specific risks as well.

Lift Hill Coasters

The “lift hill” type coasters that are pulled (lifted) up the hill via chain or cable, have devices that prevent the train from rolling backward down the hill in the event of a malfunction. These devices are called “anti-rollback” devices. Failure on a lift hill means the passengers on the coaster will have to exit the train and walk down the hill to the station via stairs or ramps installed alongside of the track. This type of exit or evacuation can be the cause of injuries as well, when riders slip, trip, or fall in the process.

Launch Coasters

Launch coasters, on the other hand, do not utilize “anti-rollback” devices and are free to roll backward toward the station at 100 mph! This happens because the launch coasters are built using a very high and very steep hill, usually referred to as a “top hat.” The track here is so very steep and high, that holding a train on it would be extremely difficult. Evacuation of riders from the train in a near vertical position at 300 ft. off the ground is a virtual impossibility. It is far safer for a train that fails to make it over the top hat, and they often fail, to return to level track at ground level and try another launch. Fail-safe magnetic brakes provide the stopping power for a returning train.

Injuries on launch can occur due to the high acceleration forces, being rattled within the restraint and even injuries caused by a broken launch cable.

Injuries during the ride may be caused by ride forces in high speed turns and stops.

Common Dangers

Occasionally, a roller coaster becomes stuck. This usually happens to looping coasters where travel becomes inverted for part of the ride. And typically, they become stuck in the inverted position, leaving dozens of riders suspended upside down, painfully, high above the ground. Injuries in such a case can include contusions, abrasions, high blood pressure, unconsciousness, blood clots, panic and broken bones. Rescue is very slow and dangerous, usually requiring hydraulic lifts and trained rescue personnel.

Coasters of all types have experienced collisions between trains, usually in the load/unload station where either a control system failure, brake failure or operator error allows one train to encroach on another.

Roller coaster restraints have been known to open, or come unlatched during the ride cycle, in some cases allowing ejection of the rider, in others, injury to the rider as he is tossed about without restraint and sometimes injuries when the restraint closes again, striking the rider.

All of the above accident scenarios must be investigated and evaluated by an appropriate amusement ride expert to determine likely causation and prepare proof.

Turning the Spotlight on the Amusement Industry

The intricate and precarious mechanics of roller coasters are only a piece of a very large puzzle as far as rides at amusement parks, carnivals, water parks, and other facilities go. Our culture is rich with various modes of entertainment, and the excitement, however fleeting, of roller coasters can be irresistible to some. However, until the amusement ride industry changes its ways and implements strict and effective safety regulations, far too many lives may be in danger.