Thrills not spills

Theme parks are a booming business in the UK, with more than one billion rides taken each year. David Cam and David Bromilow report on why insurance for these parks should not be a roller-coaster ride

They are not the stuff of popular nightmares but The Big One, Colossus and Nemesis all generate more screams than any childhood bogeyman. These theme park rides scare the living daylights out of all who use them, yet we love them for it.

In the UK, approximately one billion passenger rides are taken annually, equating to more than 16 for every person in the country. Blackpool Pleasure Beach alone attracts around seven million visitors and Alton Towers 2.7 million per year.

To keep visitors returning, parks need new rides that push visitor experience to the limits. With a new steel roller coaster costing up to £10m, the financial risk is huge so operators need to be confident they will pull in the crowds.

New rides can travel at 120 miles per hour with 375 foot vertical free falls, and g-forces 5.7 times earth's gravity. This is great news for thrill seekers but what does this mean for risk management and insurance?

Despite rigorous and innovative engineering, designers' boundaries have been set by the laws of maths and physics; however, new advances in computing and materials have pushed those boundaries back. Computer models allow designers to analyse a ride's performance, structural integrity and g-force parameters, while computer controlled manufacturing allows greater precision and technical reliability. Computers and high-tech sensors also enable ongoing monitoring and control so rides can be continually adjusted and, if necessary, shut down faster than ever before.

Testing techniques

New materials are also making rides lighter and stronger, improving vibration dampening. Advances in design, such as force reactive supports, headrests, ratcheted restraints and electro-magnetic braking systems, are taking safety to new levels. Computer software is designed with multi-layer safety systems.

Testing techniques have been adopted from other industries; acceleration testing and bio-dynamics are now common features in ride design and performance evaluation, providing essential data on the forces applied to riders.

Non-destructive testing, commonly used in aircraft design, is used to check for material fatigue, with engineers also using ultrasound, magnetic particle inspection and radiography.

During the 1990s, rides in the UK had a fatality rate per ride of less than 0.00000018%, making them twice as safe as travelling one kilometre by car, and more than 20 times as safe as walking the same distance. However, accidents can happen, so all theme park operators have systems in place to identify, monitor, manage and reduce the chances of accidents.

What are the likely causes of accidents occurring on theme park rides?

Technical failure is one and could mean a badly designed ride, breaking parts through poor maintenance or catastrophic component failure. However, rigorous design and construction, combined with a thorough inspection and maintenance regime, mean accidents through technical failure are rare.

All designers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers of rides in the UK are required by law and health and safety legislation (HSG 175) to ensure their equipment is safe when properly used. They also have to provide information about inspection and maintenance. In the UK, theme parks follow additional safety guidelines - although not legally enforceable - laid down by industry associations such as the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions and the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain.

These require members to have daily inspections by engineers and operators.

In addition, all rides are inspected annually by an independent third party and some parks subject themselves to even more frequent scrutiny.

At Blackpool Pleasure Beach, rides are independently inspected on a weekly basis. These inspections include structural examination, electrical systems, mechanical components and ride control systems.

Operator error is another potential cause of accident. Theme parks do not just need mechanically reliable rides - they need operators who follow safety procedures and can make responsible decisions not only about the rides but also about customers. For example, are riders within height and weight limits or are they under the influence of alcohol or drugs?

Staff members receive special health and safety training, as well as formal and practical training. Many parks do not allow employees under the age of 18 to operate rides, they audit the operation of rides and how they conform to procedures.

Despite all the parks' own efforts, accidents can still happen if visitors do not follow safety guidelines. Problems can arise with children who are unable to understand the consequences of not following instructions and customers who lack judgement due to alcohol or drugs; although employee training can minimise this risk.

Safety guidelines

The importance of following safety guidelines has been highlighted by media reports about riders suffering from head, neck and back injuries caused by high g-forces that rides generate. However, research by the Brain Injury Association of America has found that the g-forces generated are insufficient to cause injury in healthy people. Those at risk are pregnant women; people with heart conditions; epilepsy; existing head, neck or back injuries; people who have previously undergone orthopaedic surgery; and these are the people who are warned against riding on roller coasters.

No matter how hard a theme park tries to eliminate risk, they still need insurance to cover any accident that may happen, particularly given today's culture of litigation. The BALPPA, therefore, welcomes the recent government announcement that it promises to clamp down on the compensation culture in the UK.

Insurance companies can provide a host of measures to financially protect operators - and especially the key rides - from routine risk transfer devices to participation in the inspection and survey regimes. The big rides have unique risk profiles, so an insurer must verify good risk management arrangements are in place in order to provide the best solutions.

David Cam is chairman of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions and David Bromilow is risk control consultant at SLE Worldwide.

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