Remember when bungee jumping was so rad? Well, put it in the passe drawer. At the top of a waterfall on the southeast coast of South Africa, thrill-seekers can strap on a harness attached to a thick cord and swing downward 55 stories into the maw of the Oribi Gorge.
If that doesn’t palpitate to your liking, all over the world you can find what are known as Suspended Catch Air Devices, which free-fall people from as high as 220 feet onto nets suspended about 40 feet above the ground.
Roller coasters that corkscrew aren’t enough — the Kingda Ka roller coaster at a Six Flags park in New Jersey reaches 128 mph in 3.5 seconds and terrorizes from a height of 456 feet.
It’s hard to imagine that water slides and roller coasters could thrill at even greater speeds and from higher heights than they do now, but you can bet amusement park designers will find ways to ratchet up the thrill quotient. It’s innately human to thirst for that adrenaline swoosh that flutters the heart and tingles the skin. That feeling we got when we took our first saucer ride down a sled hill as a toddler embedded itself in our psyche, and every once in a while we feel the urge to dust it off and take it for a spin.
But just as innate is our sense of survival, and there are times when the urge to succumb to thrills needs a reality check. Do the handful of seconds that comprise a death’s-door free-fall at a SCAD attraction really make your day? For many, the answer is, Well, yeah, of course, dude! And if that’s the case, then by all means, plunge earthward.
But before you strap on your harness or pull down that safety bar, ask yourself: Does hurtling toward oblivion really define exhilaration? Isn’t it worthwhile to apply some common sense and assess the risk?
Common sense is particularly called for when you consider a mainstay of the amusement ride clientele: children. The Verruckt — German for “insane” — is the water slide at Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kan., where 10-year-old Caleb Schwab died Aug. 7 from a neck injury. The rafts on the ride seat three people and reach speeds of up to 70 mph as they make a 168-foot drop, followed by a second, 50-foot descent. Riders are harnessed in with seat belt-like restraints that are secured with Velcro-like straps rather than buckles. The son of a Kansas state lawmaker, Caleb was on the ride with two women. Witnesses say when they saw his body at the finishing pool, it appeared his neck was broken. After Caleb’s death, people who have ridden the slide before have reported that their straps came loose during the ride.
The water park as well as the Verruckt passed the annual inspections that Kansas law requires. In hindsight, it’s apparent that the ride had safety issues. Steps can and should be taken to improve the state’s inspections system.
Nevertheless, nothing — certainly no thrill ride that involves rapid movement — can be made fail safe.
That’s the deeper lesson in Caleb’s death. We need to draw a thick black line between what’s thrilling and what’s irrationally risky. And we can’t rely on a government inspection report to make that call. We should think about that demarcation ourselves — and we should think about it for our children.