I wanted every thrill: the highest roller coaster, the fastest water slide, and the double diamond ski slope. I even jumped out of planes. With age I’ve not only lost interest in cheap thrills, I’ve also become concerned about the enforcement of the arguably increasingly dangerous amusement park industry. Who will protect our children looking for their next adventure?
Earlier this month, nearly two dozen people were stranded midair for hours after a fallen tree branch partly derailed a roller-coaster ride at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, Calif. Last summer, a woman was killed at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington after she fell out of the Texas Giant roller coaster. That same day, a boat on Cedar Point’s Shoot the Rapids water ride in Sandusky, Ohio rolled backward and flipped over injuring at least six people.
Senator Edward J. Markey has argued: “Roller coasters that hurtle riders at extreme speeds along precipitous drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight. A baby stroller is subject to tougher federal regulation than a roller coaster carrying a child in excess of 100 miles per hour. This is a mistake.”
This is not a small business. “Roughly 300 million people visited the nearly 400 amusement parks in the United States in 2011, taking about 1.7 billion rides.”
A recent study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy documented that more than 93,000 children under the age of 18 were treated in emergency rooms for amusement-park-related injuries between 1990 and 2010.
There is a Biblical commandment requiring caution and self-preservation: “You shall carefully guard your own lives” (Deuteronomy 4:15). Maimonides was adamant that we should not only avoid these dangerous forces from our society, but proactively destroy them.
Whether it is the roof or anything else that is dangerous, so that a person may potentially stumble and lose his life, such as, for example, if he had a well or ditch in his courtyard, whether they contained water or not, he is obligated to make a protective barrier of ten handbreadths or to make a cover, so that no one will fall and be fatally injured. Likewise, concerning any obstruction that is life-threatening, there is a positive commandment to remove it and protect against it and to be exceedingly careful concerning it, as it states, “But take utmost care and guard yourselves scrupulously.” And if he does not remove the (danger), and allows the dangerous obstacles to remain in place, he has nullified the positive commandment and has violated (the negative commandment) of “You shall not bring blood-guilt on your house.” There are many things that the Sages prohibited because they involve danger to life, and anyone who violates them saying, “I have the right to endanger myself, what business is it of others?” or who says, “I am not concerned about the risk,” receives rabbinically sanctioned lashes (Hilkhot Rotzeiah 11:4-5).
This ruling was later codified into Jewish law by the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 116:5).
One should avoid all things that might lead to danger, because danger to life is more severe than a ritual prohibition, and one should be more concerned about a possible danger to life than a possible prohibition. Therefore, the Sages prohibited one to walk in a place of danger, such as near a leaning wall, or alone at night… All these things are intended to avoid danger, and one who is concerned with his health will avoid them. And it is prohibited to rely on some saving miracle or to endanger oneself in any similar situation.
But how dangerous is too dangerous? One could argue that these rides are far less dangerous than reckless teenage drivers (for example, 2,700 teens age 16-19 were killed and more than 280,000 injured in traffic accidents in 2010). Even though accidents at amusement parks may be on the rise, the chance of risk is still very low. For this reason, individuals should cautiously enjoy amusement parks. But we must collectively advocate for higher enforcement and precautions. While thrill rides should not be the model entertainment and joy we promote, children will naturally be curious about these unique experiences. Rather than bar what seems to have been prevalent in most American childhoods, we should limit exposure, improve standards, and generate more intellectual and spiritual forms of engagement as well.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”