What bothers me, though, is that no one seems to recognize that there are two issues at play here regarding brain injuries: G forces, and head whipping.
No one should die from riding a theme park ride.
Lawyers, lawmakers and consumer advocates are bringing the public's attention to the high G forces on some of the nation's roller coasters. High G forces can be deadly to people with pre-existing medical conditions, such as aneurysms, and can even impair the abilities of otherwise healthy people.
But high G forces are not the only element endangering theme park visitors. Poorly designed head restraints, or the lack of head restraints altogether, on high-speed rides may be causing more injuries than high G forces.
When a head is improperly restrained on a high-speed ride, it can whip in several directions, placing stress on blood vessels within the head and neck. If that stress is too great, those blood vessels can break, injuring or killing the rider.
The most widely noted recent death from a head whipping injury was that of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt died of massive blood loss after his unrestrained head whipped forward violently during a crash, according to an independent medical examiner hired by the Tribune Company, who examined Earnhardt's autopsy photos. The incident, coupled with the deaths of several other drivers under similar circumstances in NASCAR and the CART racing series, prompted the nation's major auto racing series to require drivers to wear head and neck restraints such as the HANS device during competition.
Similar forces, on a lesser scale, may have contributed to the injuries of riders on attractions like Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, who have suffered hemorrhages, concussions and severe headaches. Indiana Jones is not a roller coaster, and does not subject its riders to high G forces. But it, and other rides based on flight simulator technology, do pitch and twist riders unpredictably, whipping their heads in many directions during the ride.
Even on roller coasters, where one can often see what's coming by looking at the track ahead, riders suffer brain injuries when their heads bang repeatedly against ill-fitting over-the-shoulder restraints, or whip freely around turns with no restraint at all. How many of you have exited an attraction feeling beaten and bruised from a bad over-the-shoulder restraint? Or with a headache or nausea after having your head whipped around on a ride?
If a rider's head is properly restrained, and that rider suffered from no preexisting medical condition such as aneurysm, a single, brief exposure to high G forces will cause no permanent damage. Even if a rider suffers constricted vision or blacks out, the rider will return to normal as soon as the additional G forces stop.
But head whipping can cause damage to blood vessels inside the brains of perfectly healthy people, leading to headaches, concussions and even death. Indeed, many of the thrill ride brain injuries on a list recently released by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D. Mass.) involve incidents where head whipping, in addition to G forces, may have contributed to the injury.
Physicians don't yet know at what specific point the average person will suffer permanent neurological damage after multiple exposures to high G forces. And individuals with aneurysms have no business on a roller coaster, or other thrill ride.
Unfortunately, a sign on a thrill ride warning people with aneurysms to stay away won't help those who don't know they suffer from that condition. Americans need better preventive medical screening for aneurysms and other long-term health defects. How many young athletes die each year because their congenital heart defects weren't detected in a routine medical exam? People should know if their bodies suffer from a silent symptom that might one day kill them.
We've done a good job as a society of screening people for high blood pressure, cholesterol and some forms of cancer. Let's defer the billion-dollar tax cuts for a few years and spend the necessary money on research to find ways to protect us from other silent killers, as well.
If G force restrictions reduce the speed and turbulence of some roller coasters, that should help reduce the head whipping problem. But G force restrictions alone won't solve it. As we've seen on rides such as Indiana Jones Adventure, healthy riders are at risk for brain injuries even on low G force rides.
No one's asking parks to force riders to don race-car-style HANS devices. But it's reasonable to think that the people who helped design better restraints for race-car drivers could devise better systems for thrill rides, as well.
The theme park industry needs to design better head restraints on high-speed and turbulent rides. Ideally, it would do so voluntarily, but if the industry delays, lawsuits or legislation will be needed.
But lawmakers, consumer advocates and the industry will miss a larger opportunity to help even more theme park visitors if they focus exclusively on G forces and do nothing else to address the issue of head support and restraint.
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