Roller-coaster safety: Is it a good thing?

Have you ever ridden “Dueling Dragons” or as it’s more popularly known “Dragon Challenge?” It’s a dueling roller coaster in the the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure.  For twelve years, this ride has been one of the main attractions of the park and has also been one of my favorite rides. You get to go over 50 mph, do loops and come blisteringly close to the other roller coaster.

But the ride changed after an investigation following two accidents last summer involving a man suffering from lacerations on his eyes and another man getting severely bruised, both from loose objects. The ride will duel no more.

The Dragon Challenge is an amazing feat of roller-coaster engineering but now has been subjected to a new safety policy and has been re-classed a “chase coaster.” One coaster will launch first and then another behind it. They will get near each other but will not cross paths, directly minimizing the chance for something to smack you in the face from the other coaster.

Times are definitely changing. The same safety-conscious people, who have changed playgrounds from wooden behemoths into small plastic foam-filled parks, have finally gotten to the people who regulate roller-coaster safety. Soon people will be lining up to ride the “straight line coaster.” You go straight. No one’s hurt. No one has fun.

When I was little, I used to be terrified of roller-coasters. I believed that if I wasn’t holding onto something for dear life, I would fly out. This is how roller-coasters were intended to be enjoyed — that sense of danger, that who ever designed this thing was insane and deserves to be locked up for breaking the laws of physics. This fear has subsided, and I now enjoy these thrill rides for the adrenaline rush and not the fear of instant death. I recognize that these rides are safe and that time has been spent to make sure no one is injured during normal operations. It’s the other people you need to be worried about it seems.

The reason for of the change to Dragon Challenge is simple. Someone was struck in the face by a phone or another loose object. These are problems operators had been trying to tackle over the last decade — how to prevent loose objects from flying out of peoples pockets during the ride.

I wish they didn’t have to change rides to avoid this problem. I loved the dramatic effect of having a roller coaster coming within eighteen inches of me. I think they really should have people empty their pockets or wrap them in plastic wrap so nothing flies out to keep the ride authentic. You and I know that could never happen. No matter what precautions could be taken to limit the pocket possessions on a ride, someone would still get hurt.

It’s these devices people carry, that are huge. The guys who got hit were lucky it wasn’t a Netbook that clocked them in the face. People’s gigantic phones are now the main hazard for fellow rides. It turns out that most of the problems from loose objects hitting people are from fellow riders trying to take pictures during the ride. This is something that, even though park officials discourage, is still going to happen. There is very little to do except perhaps limit the interaction between coasters that nearly collide with each other.

I am obviously not an expert. I don’t know much about playground safety or rollercoaster physics, but perhaps, in the end, Universal did the right thing. Taking human error out of the equation is probably the best way to continue the lineage of the ride while preserving patron safety.

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