Ed Markey’s Peculiar Crusade
His unhealthy obsession with amusement-park safety

The Raptor ride at Cedar Point in Ohio (Photo: Jérémy Jännick)


Now that John Kerry has been sworn in as secretary of state and is off topping up his air miles, it appears likely that Representative Ed Markey will become the next U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

I’ve been familiar with Markey for quite a while, primarily because, for almost a decade and a half now, he has been hell-bent on ruining my fun. Markey, his House website confirms, has a bee in his bonnet about amusement parks — one of my great loves in life — and, in an attempt to remove its sting, “has introduced legislation in every Congress since 1999 to restore full federal oversight to the rides that Americans enjoy every day.” Translation: The federal government currently has no authority to regulate amusement-park rides, and Markey thinks that they should take it.

Markey found his eccentric calling during a horrifying but statistically aberrant week in 1999 during which four people were killed in amusement-park accidents. Drawing on his unholy blend of ignorant outrage and unwavering belief in the federal government’s capacity to fix all ills, the congressman immediately began agitating for federal oversight of all “fixed-site amusement rides,” blaming the tragedies on the increased speed, height, and intensity of the nation’s roller coasters.

In the 1990s, giant leaps forward in both computer technology and structural engineering pushed a theretofore-embryonic renaissance in roller-coaster design to full fruition. For most Americans, this was a Good Thing. Not only did thrill rides become bigger, better, and more popular, but the whole amusement industry began to boom in sympathy with the economy. By 2010, enticed by ever more sophisticated attractions, 290 million people were visiting American amusement parks, bolstering the profits of an industry that annually contributed $57 billion to the economy and provided jobs for more than 600,000 people.

Alas, Ed Markey was not amused. He characterized the boom as a “roller-coaster arms race,” and fretted hysterically about the “increasing speed and force” of America’s new-generation thrill rides. “Technology and commercial pressures are combining in ways that are testing the edge of the safety envelope on high-speed, high G-force” attractions, Markey complained. At the height of the hysteria in 2002, during a brief period in which Markey was taken seriously by the media, New Jersey went so far as to impose a “G-force” limit on all new installations in the state. It was Government Knows Best at its worst.

This silly law, while a worrying indication of what Markey wanted to do at the federal level, was the extent of what his movement achieved. His failure led him to complain in June 2011 that “the amusement-park-ride industry pulls out all the stops to prevent” his proposals “from moving forward in Congress.” This is arrant nonsense. Markey is no David and the amusement industry is no Goliath. He is, instead, a man hopelessly glued to an idiosyncratic idée fixe from which he cannot be shaken. Insofar as he is battling any implacable foe, it is reality. For this, the Boston Herald has mocked him deliciously from the outset, casting him in September 1999 as “Rep. Nanny,” a man who “believes in the dangers of roller coasters the way some earlier residents of an adjacent district believed in witches: in defiance of all evidence.”

That evidence? It’s indisputable. In 2003, alarmed by the ignorance of Markey’s campaign — and the willingness of many in the press to give it a platform — the Six Flags chain commissioned both the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) and the engineering group Exponent Failure Analysis Associates (EFAA) to conduct in-depth studies of the issue. For Markey, the results were devastating. The AANS concluded flatly that “there is no proof that roller coasters cause neurological injury and there is no significant public-health risk associated with amusement-park attendance.” The association’s spokesman, Dr. Robert Harbaugh, added that injury rates at amusement parks are “significantly lower” than those of “other activities such as owning bunk beds, skateboards, sleds, or bicycles.” Presenting the EFAA’s report, Dr. Lee Dickinson concurred, affirming that “roller coasters are safe” and explaining that “we did not find anything to suggest that a public-health issue exists.” More specifically, he continued, “G-forces on roller coasters are not a problem and the available government data do not support a problem.”