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Higher and Faster, But Not for Everyone


The latest roller coasters at U.S. amusement parks are now higher and faster than ever -- and more are being built. It's a boom for thrill seekers, but are these rides safe?

Thousands at amusements parks scurry around, line up, and climb into all sorts of contraptions to be lifted and dropped, tossed and turned, twisted and terrified -- all summer long. The question is, why?

"Pure adrenaline, excellent," says one rider. “I feel like I'm falling off a cliff, but I know inside I'm safe.”

Are you? Industry spokesman Alan Ramsay, Vice President of Ripley Entertainment Inc., says yes. “You have a greater chance playing billiards requiring a hospital visit than you do riding an amusement ride or device.”

In the United States, an average of four people are killed in amusement ride accidents every year, but new technology is raising safety concerns for one U.S. Congressman. Representative Edward Markey says the danger must be acknowledged. "As each year goes by, the rides become faster and more dangerous and advertise as such."

Yet that is exactly what riders want. "Speed, acceleration, g-forces, the biggest and the fastest. Biggest-fastest-steepest anything," say riders.

The thirst for bigger thrills has brought furious competition to the multi-billion dollar amusement park industry. The title of world's fastest and tallest roller has changed six times in the past 10 years. One roller coaster in Ohio, in America's Midwest, was "IT" for thrill seekers, until the Kingda Ka roller coaster began operating at the New Jersey Great Adventure park last year.

Engineer Michael Reitz says the goal was to build taller and faster. 'We wanted to build the tallest, fastest ride in the world. That was the goal and we did it.'

It rises up nearly 140 meters, dives, and reaches a screaming 220 kilometers an hour in three and a half seconds. Park officials won't talk its effects, or g-forces, on this ride, but the gravitational force on the body is said to be similar to that experienced by elite racecar drivers.

Despite several recent incidents, a fatality of unknown cause on a roller coaster at Disney World and an accident injuring 20 when a roller coaster in Ohio suddenly stopped in mid-ride, the construction boom and race to new heights show no sign of ending any time soon. There are at least 17 major roller coasters under construction and on track to thrill riders in the U.S. in 2007.

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