Roller Coasters, Death and the Freedom to Be the Bad Guy

Recently there were some news items about theme park accidents. In specific, there was a death at Six Flags Texas. The story broke very shortly after my own trip to Kings Dominion this year, and spurred some thoughts. I’ve just now gotten my thoughts in enough order to put them out there.

Though part of what I’m writing will end up making me sound like a big ol’ jerk-face, please understand that I’m always sorry to hear about someone who loses their life unexpectedly. My heart breaks for the family they leave behind. Worse than that, to hear that it was not just an unexpected, but unquestionably horrifying, way to die fills me with grief.

But the story has of course stirred up the usual interest in who’s responsible for the safety of park-goers. Though I didn’t know it before the story, it dredged up another push for our ever-increasing federal bureaucracy to exert more power over strapping our thrill-seeking buttocks into those seats. A federal government that has more than enough to do already, and people are reflexively calling for it to get more involved in yet another aspect of our lives.

The Truth of the Matter

The amusement park industry is a tightly-regulated industry already. As gauche as it may be to point this out, they’re in the business of making money. If they do not keep people safe, they lose a lot of money, and not just to the inevitable settlements and/or lawsuits.

Deaths make people avoid the parks. Rides get shut down during investigations. The big attractions that draw people fail to get those admissions dollars. That coaster they spent up to $25 million or more to construct, not to mention market and maintain annually, becomes a giant money pit.

Of course, everyone dances around the simple fact that sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Machines fail, fail-safes don’t function properly and sometimes you just draw the short straw.

Then there’s the elephant in the room, if you pardon the expression in this context.


I’ve gotten into many debates about the role of government regulating us into an idyllic nation of svelte  people. There are any of a number of reasons I bristle at Michael Bloomberg, but the simple fact is that if I want a 50-ounce Pepsi®, then by goodness I have every gosh-darn right to it.

Do we need better education about eating the right way? Sure we do.

Whose responsibility is it? Ultimately our own.

I used to be much heavier than I am. I worked hard to lose that extra weight; sometimes it creeps back on and I have to work it off again. This is true of anyone.

But this is actually a side issue. The real issue is that the parks need the freedom to be the Bad Guy.

No One Wants to be the Bad Guy

While we were at Kings Dominon, I saw a guy have a helluva time getting into the Shockwave, a stand-up roller coaster. The problem was that he couldn’t put his arms behind himself to get the restraints closed. It was horribly awkward.

Instead of telling the guy to get off the coaster, the park attendants got him wedged into the restraints. It would have been a better solution to say to him, “Sorry, for your own safety, you can’t ride this attraction.” Those restraints were designed to work within certain limits that he exceeded.

They need to let the attendants have the authority to enforce the rules. While I don’t think that people should be teased, mocked or ridiculed for being overweight (they’re still human beings), I do think that when it comes to individual safety we need to give the authority to enforce the rules to the attendants. They need to know complaints won’t get them fired.

Otherwise more restraints will fail as they are put under greater stress than ones for which they were designed.

Free to Be You and Me

In short, I’m not going to stop any person from eating whatever they want. It’s a free country.

If you want to eat poorly and elect not to exercise, that’s on you. If you force the rest of us to adapt so that you don’t feel inconvenienced by the consequences of your own actions, then we have a problem, especially in an area dealing with immediate safety.

I spend a lot of time teaching my kids about consequences of their actions, please show me a sign that your parents did the same.

Just be considerate of others, for pete’s sake.


8 thoughts on “Roller Coasters, Death and the Freedom to Be the Bad Guy

  1. Not sure there’s much to add to our previous discussions on this, but what the hell. I’ll take the bait.

    The statement “If you force the rest of us to adapt so that you don’t feel inconvenienced by the consequences of your own actions, then we have a problem…” ironically overlooks the extent to which the obesity epidemic has already forced us all to adapt to it.

    If you have had health insurance or employed anyone who received health benefits in the past several years, obesity has taken more than a few bucks out of your pocket without your consent.

    Never forget that the biggest problem about obesity isn’t cosmetic; It is about living with **phenomenal** health risk. Obesity is linked with a litany of chronic diseases including (but amazingly not limited to): diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, stroke, COPD, gout, asthma, AFib, sleep apnea, depression and certain kinds of cancer. All of that adds up to a LOT of medical care, a lot of pills and maybe some surgery, which translates to higher insurance premiums and a costlier burden of health benefits for employers (to say nothing of the demands it places on doctors already in the midst of a primary care and nursing shortage, and – to a lesser extent – what that means in terms of your overall healthcare experience at the point of care).

    That’s not entirely intended as an argument for more regulation – and certainly not more silly regulation.
    But the question is: what the heck do you do now? If the government shouldn’t be allowed to do anything about it (and look around – they clearly haven’t accomplished anything) and if certain industries have no incentive to stop the money train, who gets screwed?

    It’s a complicated problem. Inaction (literally and figuratively) is what got us here.

    1. Sorry for the delayed reply, but I’ve been meaning to get back to this for days. Thanks as always for the comments. I have nothing to argue per se, just thoughts that were spurred.

      The thing that always bends my mind is that even when I’m in fighting trim – and I’m a natural heavyweight – those standardized doctor charts list *me* as obese. When we’re talking about obvious cases, I’m right there with you. But not everyone is going to fall in line with those charts, so I wonder if there’s an accepted margin of error on estimates.

      I agree that we need to get people to move more — if anything, the rise of the fear-the-outdoors, video-game crowd, among which we’re the first line, has led to this. I’m sincerely hoping things like Kinect and Wii make a difference there.

      As for silly regulations, I still love that the Mayor who wants to limit salt and sugar endorses a hot-dog-eating contest. Because I’m pretty sure binge-eating contests are way more unhealthy than anything I’ve ever done. Well, except for the smoking and drinking. Those were pretty bad. :-p

      1. BMI is def flawed. Still, the chronic health/economic cascade happens whether the incidence estimates are 15 percent off or not. See: power law distribution theory.

        As for the silly regulations, that the only thing that troubles me is your singular focus on Bloomberg. It would *seem* to *perhaps* suggest an inclination that all government programs aimed at prevention equate overreach.

        Personally, I see a government role. Only it’s based around incentives over penalties, and taking the steps to offer citizens as much info as possible to assist them in making up their own mind. To that end, I always thought calorie counts on the menus (ironically, a NY program) were just plain sensible. Some studies debate whether they work among certain populations, but I know this much: I gave up lobster mac and cheese after that (…not easy, especially when Sanofi was paying for it)!

        The thing is, I didn’t have to. And there were still a whole lotta King Kong Bundy’s in the Capital Grille that night.

        Don’t get me started on Nathan’s (or that damned Travel Channel show). If you feel strongly enough about hunger and social justice issues, competitive eating is almost immoral.

        1. I focus on Bloomberg because he’s a terrific example of Lewis’ warning against moral busybodies in power: they can never be satisfied with how far they’ve gone. To wit, I agree that posting calorie and fat counts in a restaurant is not a bad thing. That falls under the umbrella of “more education,” which (in theory) leads to better decisions.

          The problem is when you have places banning things because they’re horrified the commoners are eating a large bucket of movie popcorn three meals a day! In shirt, they don’t seem to understand that for a lot of us, eating bad food is still a rare and guilty treat. We *know* it’s bad for us. (Side note: I stopped eating movie popcorn for a long time after I spoke with someone who told me the grease they used to pop it “burned” holes in their shirts when they washed them. I pick at it now and again, and split a small with Agent Bun, but always regret it the next day.)

          I agree on the eating contests. I think on some level it’s cute to have a “best milkshake in town” place in East Nowhere challenge people to drinking 5 milkshakes, but when you’re actually at the level of calling it a “competition” it *is* reprehensible in a world where people are literally dying from hunger, or where starvation is a political tactic to hold onto power.

          See? We’re not so far apart as you might think. 🙂

  2. In the good old days, when we argued about the role of the federal government, there were those that said, “Shared resources, like a network, but otherwise leaving me to be free,” and other that said, “protect the minority from the majority.” Both are noble causes. Nowadays, the argument is, “Save us from ourselves.” Did Wil Smith’s I, Robot, teach you anything? I mean, sure, it didn’t teach you much, but anything? Just a tiny bit?

    I think basing my argument on the merits of “I, Robot” is a tweetable moment.

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