Politics & Policy

Ed Markey’s Peculiar Crusade

The Raptor ride at Cedar Point in Ohio (Photo: Jérémy Jännick)
His unhealthy obsession with amusement-park safety

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.”

Responding to Markey’s claim that G-forces were reaching perilous levels, often akin to those experienced in a “space-shuttle launch” or in a “jet fighter,” the EFAA’s Dr. Rhea Seddon, an astronaut and physician who flew on three space-shuttle missions, declared that “anyone who tries to compare the forces on a roller coaster to the ride on the Shuttle doesn’t really understand the physiology of G-forces.” Her colleague, Captain Robert Gibson, a former fighter pilot and space-shuttle commander, harmonized: “A sneeze or skipping rope involves more G-forces than riding a roller coaster or the space shuttle.”

In his testimony, the EFAA’s Dickinson made sure to mention that statistics compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission — Markey’s regulator of choice — revealed that the “annual number of injuries on fixed amusement-park rides is less than that for children’s wagons or for beach chairs or folding lawn chairs.” This is true, but it is to understate the case. Over a lifetime, an American has a one-in-300-million chance of being killed on a roller-coaster ride, so you’d have very literally to believe the “if it saves one life” prattle in order to justify so much as lifting a finger.

To put these odds into perspective: Across an average lifetime, an average American has a one-in-80 chance of dying in a car accident, a one-in-11,000 chance of dying in the bath, a one-in-10,000 chance of being hit by lightning, a one-in-131,000 chance of being killed in an earthquake, and a one-in-500,000 chance of being killed in a tsunami. In a given year, an American has a one-in-10,000,000 chance of dying because the aircraft he is travelling on falls apart — but a onein1.5 billion chance of being killed on a roller coaster. If you’re still moved to write your local representative to see if he can do anything to increase your life expectancy, then perhaps consider this first: Americans are 5,000 times more likely to be legally executed by their own government than to die on a roller coaster. Priorities, priorities.

Despite all of this, Markey was not satisfied. Muttering quietly about industry bias and insinuating a cover-up, Markey announced that he remained skeptical of anything sponsored by Six Flags and was looking forward to the Brain Injury Association of America’s finishing its own comprehensive inquiry into the link between brain injuries and roller coasters. This it did in 2003. It found no link whatsoever. “The overwhelming majority of riders,” the BIA’s report baldly stated, “will suffer no ill effects,” because the “risk of brain injury from a roller coaster is not in the rides, but in the riders.” And among those riders

the 57 cases of patients who reportedly sustained craniocerebral injury related to roller-coaster rides over the past 38 years revealed no evidence of ride-related brain injury absent head contact. Furthermore, of the 51 non-fatal injuries, the majority sustained neurovascular injuries, and of the six fatal injuries, all suffered undiagnosed neurovascular abnormalities such as blood-vessel abnormalities, malformations, or aneurysms.

Given that the worst thing that can happen to an amusement park is a serious accident on its premises, Markey’s suspicion of the owners’ motives is distinctly odd. “Amusement parks,” the Boston Herald observed, “have no interest, zilch, nada, in running unsafe rides, and powerful incentives not to. Every injury or death means buckets of money paid out in damages.” Even a frivolous lawsuit can gum up the works for months. Accordingly, park operators take out insurance and their insurance companies obligate park operators to abide by extremely stringent safety measures. The “commercial pressures” of which Markey complained are real, but rather than being a threat to the “safety envelope,” they are its strictest enforcer.

As to Markey’s rejection of the efficacy of state-level oversight: Three of the four deaths that set the congressman’s crusade rolling were in states that regulated fixed rides, and one was in a state that did not. At the time, twelve states didn’t regulate fixed rides at all, which means that, at least for that set of accidents, there was no statistical difference in outcomes between the states that regulated amusement-park rides and those that did not. This is almost precisely what you’d expect, not to mention a neat indicator of quite how much of a non-problem Markey is wasting his time trying to fix. Quite what advantage there would be in giving this responsibility to an already creaking federal government is never properly spelled out.

If Ed Markey gains promotion to the Senate, there is little to suggest that he will leave his peculiar obsession behind in the House. Nothing thus far has shaken him from his mission, and nothing appears capable of doing so. Perhaps the most that those of us who enjoy our amusement-park rides as they are can hope for is that when Ed Markey attempts to recruit his fellow senators to his cause, they follow that most famous piece of advice: Do Not Stand Up.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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