SANDUSKY, Ohio - The roller-coaster season began last weekend, and Dave Haverlock has set himself a lofty goal.
The 21-year-old Cleveland resident wants to ride the world's tallest roller coaster 310 times - one for every vertical foot of steel. He is well ahead of schedule. In the first four days of the brand-new $25 million Millennium Force's operation, he rode it more than 40 times.
Hurtling at more than 90 mph down an 80-degree slope gives him a sensation like no other, he says: "The height, the speed, the air time - it's just an all-around great ride."
Others believe the roller-coaster industry has hit an all-time low. Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts has sponsored legislation calling for better regulation of coasters and more studies about the effects they might have on the human body.
"Last August was the most calamitous month in roller-coaster history, with four deaths occurring in just six days in three separate parks," Markey said during a hearing Tuesday. "Serious injuries are increasing, perhaps reflecting the increase in speed on the new steel coasters."
Ten years ago, the average speed was 55 mph, Markey said; today it is more than 70 mph. "The consequences of error are proportionately more serious."
Cedar Point Amusement Park, the second-oldest amusement park in the country, has consistently led the race toward taller and faster coasters. Once, groves of cedar trees lined the peninsula, giving Cedar Point its name. Now, the curvy roller-coaster skyline looks like a city from the future. The park, on a peninsula that juts into Lake Erie, attracts almost 3.5 million people a year, making it one of the best-attended seasonal parks in the nation.
The Millennium Force is the tallest and fastest coaster and has the longest drop - 300 feet. It is the first to use an elevator lift system, as opposed to a traditional lift chain, which smooths the ascent. And it has the steepest noninversion banked turn on a roller coaster - 122 degrees. (On an inverted coaster, the vehicle hangs below the track with passengers' legs dangling as if on a ski lift).
Many of the other roller coasters in the park broke records in their day. When the Magnum XL-200 opened in 1989, it was the tallest and fastest in the world - the first to top 200 feet. In 1991, the Mean Streak opened, becoming the tallest and fastest wooden coaster. In 1994, the Raptor, an inverted coaster, broke all the records. In 1996, the Mantis broke other records, becoming the tallest, fastest and steepest stand-up coaster.
Cedar Point Amusement Park breaks records, too. It has the most rides at one park (68), the most roller-coaster track at one park (44,013 feet) and the most roller coasters at one park (14). They are: Millennium Force, Woodstock's Express, Mantis, Raptor, Mean Streak, Disaster Transport, Magnum XL-200, Iron Dragon, Gemini, Jr. Gemini, Corkscrew, WildCat, Cedar Creek Mine Ride and Blue Streak.
Markey believes that it is the race to build the tallest and fastest coaster - the race to attract riders - that has caused an increase in coaster-related injuries.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, six people died on roller coasters last year. The number of amusement ride-related injuries treated in emergency rooms increased from about 2,400 in 1994 to 4,500 in 1998. Many of these injuries are scrapes, bruises, or broken bones from collisions or other accidents.
But what concerns Markey more are at least 16 documented cases of brain damage that he says have occurred after people rode on roller coasters. Brain damage can manifest itself as headaches, convulsions, numbness and altered temperature sensation. Researchers worry that high-speed rides could also cause minor internal bleeding or small strokes.
In October, Markey introduced the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act, which seeks to bring federal oversight to an industry regulated, with varying degrees of diligence, by individual states. As a result of a loophole, Markey says, not one federal safety agency spends money overseeing the safety of the millions of children and young adults who ride roller coasters each year.
Eleven states have no inspection laws and 13 have no laws requiring operators to report injuries, says Ann Brown, chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"I am very concerned with the climbing numbers of emergency room-treated injuries for fixed-site amusement park rides," she says.
Markey's bill, co-sponsored by 25 members of Congress from both parties, has been endorsed by three major consumer safety organizations: the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Bryan Edwards, a spokesman for Cedar Point, insists that it is one of the safest amusement parks in the country. Ohio, he says, is one of two states with full-time ride inspectors. In addition to that, he says, the amusement park has safety inspectors who ride the rides every day, looking and listening for wear.
That caution has paid off, he says: "We've never had a ride-related fatality."
Enthusiasts are more inclined to side with Edwards than Markey. Bill Linkenheimer, president of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a group with more than 4,000 members, says he thinks that Markey is like scientists of yore who believed that the human body could never withstand the force of traveling to the moon.
"I'm the furthest thing from anybody with a medical background," he says, "but in general, I think it's ridiculous." Linkenheimer, who rides about 50 coasters a year, has been to Cleveland to try the Millennium Force."Awesome," the Pittsburgh man says, "a great ride."
Jeff Putz, a Cedar Point fan who lives outside Cleveland, calls it a "one-of-a-kind ride." He should know, having been on about 60 roller coasters."The speed is something that's real different from other rides," he says. "It's a lot of sustained, intense speed." Cedar Point, in general, he says, "is kind of an escape from real life."
Haverlock says Markey's bill won't stop him from making the 80-mile drive to Sandusky from Cleveland three times a week to ride the Millennium Force and other coasters. He says most accidents happen when people break the rules.
Haverlock calls Markey's bill "a waste."
"I think the government is sticking its nose into a business that doesn't need to be regulated."