Some amusement park rides are not amusing. Every year about 9,000 children under the age of 14 years get an extra ride – to the emergency room. Many more mishaps are treated at first aid stations, by private physicians or by parents. Rides intended for children younger than four years of age account for about a quarter of the ER visits.
1. Amusement parks are not particularly hazardous. Most injuries are minor. Only a small number require hospitalization. Playgrounds, winter sports, and waterfront activities may cause more mishaps per child participant. Serious accidents make headlines, in part because they are so rare.
2. Most amusement park accidents are preventable. You the parent is the ultimate safety inspector. Never let kids “please, please, please” you into letting them go on rides not intended for them – even though you’re there to please them. There are no mandatory federal safety standards for amusement rides and state and local government oversight is often murky. Be especially cautious of rides at small, seasonal parks, even more so if the rides are part of a traveling carnival.
3. Obey posted age, height and weight restrictions. However, operators base safety guidelines on standard height and weight tables, not taking into account the great variability in size of children at a given age, and not considering their maturity and impulsivity. Children younger or smaller than posted limits can slip out of restraints; those older or bigger can overload rides. Pay close attention to rides that use single lap bars for multiple riders. These bars fit closely only against the largest passenger in the car, allowing smaller riders to stand up during the ride or slip out under the bar.
4. Match rides to your child’s temperament. Don’t coax children to try rides if they are reluctant to do so. Don’t let older children do so. Children who have queasy stomachs may become ill on merry-go-rounds and roller coasters. Vomiting ruins the day. Excessive darkness, present on some rides, frightens some children and causes them to act irrationally, placing themselves and others in danger.
5. Observe rides before allowing young children on them. Rides should have safety instructions posted. Operators should be friendly, attentive and help children on and off. Observe if children exiting the ride are happy. If a part of a ride is out of sight, ask if there are hidden sharp curves, sudden drops or excessively “scary” features. Ask if a ride can be stopped if a child becomes unruly or overly frightened.
6. Check “kiddie” rides. These rides move slowly, have no ups and downs or sharp curves, and are very safe for seated, cooperative toddlers. However, many rides have no or inadequate safety restraints. Moreover, toddlers are unpredictable and impulsive, and may become “spooked’ for no apparent reason. They may get up during the ride, fall out, or become entangled in inappropriate safety devices.
7. Instruct children in safety. Accidents occur when children fail to grasp or obey safety rules. Tell them not to clown, to keep arms and legs inside, to hold on tightly with both hands, and to never get up until instructed. If they become frightened they should stay in their seats, close their eyes, hold on tight, and, if they wish, scream out loud. Alert them to stay seated if rides stop before reaching the unloading platforms, not to retrieve objects they may drop off the ride, and if they feel dizzy or weak when exiting, to sit down on the ground and wait for assistance.
8. Skip trampolines. “The incidences of injuries jumping on trampolines outweigh any benefits,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Falling off, crashing into other children, or jumping incorrectly can result in strains, sprains, fractures and other injuries, including potentially serious head and neck injuries. Trampolines should only be used in supervised programs, with safety guidelines strictly followed.
9. Allow children to use zip lines only where you are reasonably sure that the staff is well trained and attentive and the equipment appears to be well maintained. Zip lines are soaring in popularity, resulting in several thousand ER visits yearly, with children younger than 10 years of age accounting for almost half of the injuries. Most injuries are due to falls. There are few safety guidelines for the operators. (However, backyard zip lines may be even more hazardous than commercial ones.)
10. Resources are available for children with special needs. Many larger parks offer reduced admission fees, no waiting at rides, quiet areas for resting, communication devices, and wheelchairs, to mention just a few accommodations. Such parks also have well equipped first aid stations. Call the park’s Guest Relations for details. Check the national association devoted to helping families with your child’s disability. Most such associations have websites that include information about travel and visiting amusement park-like attractions. Also check the web for blogs written by parents about their personal experiences.