Editorial: Great Escape gondola needs safety upgrade

If one person can fall out of ride, why risk another?
Screenshot of video.
Screenshot of video.

If you operate a ride that carries people two stories above rocks, trees, water and pavement, it doesn’t matter how perfect your safety record is or who was at fault in an accident.

If there’s a chance someone could fall out of that ride, it needs to be upgraded.

Last weekend, a 14-year-old girl from Delaware slipped out of the Sky Ride gondola at Six Flags Great Escape in Queensbury, only escaping serious injury or death because some quick-thinking patrons broke her fall.

The ride slowly carries people over the park about 20 to 25 feet off the ground. And from all accounts, it has a perfect safety record over 50 years.

But a perfect safety record doesn’t mean the ride is perfectly safe.

If you’ve ever ridden in one of those things with a squirmy child, you’ve got one hand on the kid and another making the sign of the cross. The material the rides are made of is kind of slick, and the bar in front designed to keep people from falling out has a large enough gap that, as we saw last week, even a teenager could slip through.

While there hasn’t been a clear account of what exactly caused the girl to fall out, it’s possible she was fooling around, kicking at something in the air or otherwise not sitting perfectly still per safety instructions.

But in what world does everyone follow every rule to perfection? She clearly wasn’t trying to climb out of the gondola or trying to perform some kind of aerial stunt when she fell. Whatever she might have been doing certainly fell within the realm of easily anticipated actions by a careless teenager.

Had she fallen out over a higher point in the ride or onto rocks or concrete structures, the outcome might have been much worse.

The operators of a ride of this nature need to anticipate this kind of outcome and have a system in place to prevent one.

Speaking of heroes, we need to take a second to praise them for their actions. Matthew Howard Sr. of Schenectady and his daughter, Leeann Winchell of Colonie, were among a handful of individuals who rushed over to catch the girl as she hung precariously from the ride. If you think it doesn’t take courage or strength to catch a 75- to 100-pound person falling from a 20-foot height, have someone toss a bag of cement off your roof and you try to catch it.

Congratulations to them.

But back to the ride. If even one person can slip out of this ride, Six Flags officials have to add safety features.

Maybe they need to add safety harnesses, or a lap belt, or a strap that goes between each rider’s legs. Maybe they should consider replacing the safety bar with one that has a foot rest, like on ski lifts, in which the rider’s weight helps keep the bar in place. Maybe they need to make the seats less slippery with different paint or a rubberized seat pad. Certainly, people who design such rides have ideas for making their rides safer. 

Six Flags in 2016 had its seventh consecutive year of record financial performance, including a record $1.3 billion in revenue and a record attendance of 30.1 million people. Surely, it can afford to make one of its most popular but potentially dangerous rides a bit safer.

Spend the money on the upgrades. Don’t count on individuals to always act perfectly according to the rules.

Overreaction? Some might think so. But this was a wakeup call.

The next such incident might not have the same fortunate outcome.

Is it really worth the risk?

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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