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How safe are the rides at the fair?

It's an American tradition, here in Montana and elsewhere across the nation, to head out to state and county fairs in the summer and early weeks of fall. Kids and the young at heart of all ages will make their way down the midway, breathing in the smells of cotton candy, funnel cakes and chili dogs.

But the rides are the big attractions, as thrill-seekers line up and purchase all-day ride wristbands to experience gravity-defying swoops and spins in midair.

Is safety compromised?

After the July tragedy that took place in Columbus at the Ohio State Fair, when a ride called the "Fireball" malfunctioned, killing one rider and injuring another seven, it's a fair question to be asking. After all, these rides are assembled and dismantled every few days by the people employed by the company that owns the amusement rides. The criteria for employment by these companies can be surprisingly low. Some mechanical aptitude and the willingness to work nomadic shifts in a series of towns in a geographic region may be all that is required to get hired for a season. Other companies may have more stringent requirements, like pre-employment urine drug screens, but it's not likely fair-goers will know the difference before purchasing tickets.

How to prevent another disaster from occurring

While those responsible for last month's tragedy will likely have to answer for their negligence in civil or possibly even criminal court, it's a good idea to focus on putting measures in place that will stop preventable accidents like that from happening again elsewhere.

Authorities in Ohio, however, returned an official cause for the malfunction that sent a row of seated riders careening through the air before crash landing abruptly on the hard ground. "Excessive corrosion" on a section of the ride not normally visible during inspections was what caused the disaster. Given that, it is quite likely that another potential disaster is on its way to a town perhaps near you.

In the Ohio case, the ride was 18 years old. That could be a red flag itself. But still, it passed no fewer than three inspections after it was assembled.

How widespread is the problem?

Accidents on carnival rides are far more common than most riders would like to believe. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), last year alone resulted in 30,000 injuries at fairs that landed individuals in America's emergency rooms.

Given internal codes denoting the injuries as related to mishaps at "amusement park[s]," it's highly likely that the majority are only minor. However, recent years have seen one boy decapitated after flying off of a water slide, a teen dangling 25 feet off the ground from a gondola and a young girl getting scalped.

What should riders do?

If you like the thrill of flipping upside down or spinning high in the air, you don't have to forgo all the fun of the county fair. But you do have to understand the possible risks and use some common sense.

Spend a few minutes watching the ride in motion before climbing aboard. Watch for any unusual shimmies, sparks or jerks in the mechanism of the ride. Listen for troublesome rattles or strange knocks or whines that could indicate a loose part or belt that's lost its tension. Pay attention to your gut instinct. If something seems off, skip it.

If you get injured in a ride at a carnival or fair, you may be able to seek compensation from any of the at-fault parties who bear liability for the accident.

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Hartelius, Durocher & Winter, PC Channing Hartelius, Roland Durocher, Jeff Winter

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