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A Summertime Risk We Can All Avoid: Rollercoasters and their G-forces could be giving you more than a headache

Jun 09, 2015 12:05PM ● By Cate Reynolds

“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide
Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride
Till I get to the bottom and I see you again
Yeah yeah yeah hey”


Some of you may recognize the lines above as the opening lyrics to The Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” Others may even know the Paul McCartney-penned effort was the “proof” crazy, evil Charles Manson needed to start his “race war” back in 1969. But the truth about Helter Skelter is surprisingly lighthearted (hey, this is McCartney after all). In England, a helter skelter is a long-time loved amusement park ride, a sort of spiral slide/roller coaster thingy. Now the lyrics make sense, don’t they?

Paul’s frenetic singing or Manson’s madness notwithstanding, it’s the sort of ride that takes us back to a kinder, gentler day and age. A time some physicians and scientists wish would return.

Traumatic brain injuries have been in the headlines a lot lately—largely in connection with playing sports. Parents are re-thinking signing their young ones up for contact sports. Even pro athletes are quitting their games (and their big paychecks) out of fear of incurring permanent brain damage. But, according to certain experts, there is something else we need to get our heads around, the potential dangers of riding roller coasters.

These rides have become higher, faster, and wilder than ever before—trying to outdo each other. And the worrisome issue is something right out of The Right Stuff: G-Forces, the force of gravity exerted on riders. One of the sources of brain injury is a kind of tossing of the brain as it bounces around inside the skull. Think of the worse/best (depending on your point of view) coaster ride you ever took. Does that “bouncing around” describe the event? Even sophisticated rides that go overboard protecting the neck from snapping about, don’t address what the brain may be doing inside the skull during the rapid movements encountered on coasters.

Statistics on roller coaster injuries are really scary—because no one seems to be collecting or monitoring them. A study conducted by the State of Maine, from 1994 to 2004, claimed that 40 people in the U.S. (ranging from age 7 to 77) were killed in coaster accidents during those years. And, of course, the brain injury angle, is too new a field to yet yield statistics. But the rides are intensifying every year, possibly right along with the effects of the rides. The future is the unknown factor. After all, it’s the future that concerns NFL players and pee wee football moms and dads.

It’s a big enough concern that the American Associate of Neurological Surgeons have assembled a national committee of neurosurgeons, NASA scientists, and engineers who are looking at how the stress of G-forces from roller coasters might affect our brains.

Certain states and organizations have tried to impose G-force limits for amusements (funny name for something that might be harmful, isn’t it?). Many advocates say a first step should be full disclosure: Thrill rides should publish the amount of G-forces exerted on every ride. That information could help us make our own decisions.
Sarah Hagerty