Consuming Issues: How safe are fairground rides?

Fairground rides are designed to thrill, twisting, twirling, thrusting and gyrating paying passengers in a sensory whirl enhanced by flashing lights and booming music. This weekend, two days after Bonfire Night, millions of Britons will enjoy the range of rides found in theme parks and funfairs, from a sedate trip on an antique merry-go-round to the full-throttle thrill of the 80mph Stealth at Thorpe Park, Surrey.

Occasionally, disaster strikes. In the past decade, there has been a grim toll of fairground accidents, some fatal, some involving life-changing injuries, and some ending in nothing more than whiplash and a few days off work.

The year 2000 in particular was the fairground industry's annus horribilis. A spate of mishaps and freak accidents occurred across the country. In March, a teenage girl from Gosport, Hampshire, had to have emergency surgery after falling under a ride. In May, 10 people were injured when a waltzer car flew into a crowd in Bedfordshire.

The same month, a 12-year-old girl who fell from a swinging gondola ride in Cornwall died, and a 28-year-old Australian tourist was killed when a ride car fell to the ground in Shepherd's Bush, London, injuring its two occupants.

In July, there was a third death, of an 11-year-old who fell from a ride in Blackpool. In August, a 12-inch bolt came off a ride at Coney Beach in Porthcawl, fracturing a teenager's skull. There were many other accidents in 2000.

Almost a decade later, things still go wrong, sometimes with devastating consequences.

This May, a two-year-old boy, Erjon Hyseni, ran away from his father and on to the tracks of the Go-Gator ride at a fair in Turnpike Lane, north London. Before the fairground operator could hit the stop button, the ride hit Erjon, killing him.

Newspaper cuttings show that several other serious accidents have occurred at fairgrounds in recent years.

But it is worth asking: as we reach the end of the decade, are fairground rides any safer than in 2000?

The answer seems to be: yes.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest thatfairgrounds are much safer than they were 10 years ago.

In the past decade, accidents to members of the public have been on a steep downward trajectory, falling every year except for one. Numbers of non-fatal accidents to members of the public fell from 303 in 2001 to 76 in 2008.

Until Erjon Hyseni's tragic death, there were no deaths involving members of the public for the preceding three years, according to the HSE.

Injuries and deaths among workers have been falling, too, from 124 in 2001 to 50 in 2008, though one fairground employee is still killed on average every year.

Why has the total number of accidents fallen so dramatically? The HSE stresses there has been no new legislation, but says it "has been active in pursuing ways of making the industry safer".

A review of guidelines for fairground safety completed in 2001 strengthened guidance on the design and inspection of rides. Since 2003, operators have been obliged to display the most recent inspection date on their equipment.

In 2004, the industry inspection scheme, the Amusement Devices Inspection Procedures Scheme, achieved an international quality mark, ISO 9001.

Rides are inspected at least once a year by independent engineers, according to the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, which represents employers of the 20,000 travelling workers who construct and take back down the rides that move around the country.

Plenty of things can go wrong when children and adults are propelled through the air at high speeds on temporary structures, when some may have been drinking alcohol or be in a state of high excitement.

Perhaps it is worth suggesting that the emphasis on "elf and safety", much maligned in some quarters, isn't such a bad thing after all?

Heroes & Villians

Hero: The Ram, Firle

Let's start with what The Ram in Firle lacks: garish wallcoverings, a jukebox, gassy industrial lager, threatening drunks, grumpy barmaids, pretensions to be a boutique hotel. And then what it has: blazing fires, real ale, a snug, reasonably-priced, efficiently served food, stylish unfussy bedrooms. Need I say more? Except, perhaps, that it wasn't a freebie. Just a great pub.

Villain: Odeon cinemas

Isn't it enough to be charged for something once? Cinemas, theatres, music venues and airlines only vex and irritate by slapping a fee on the booking of tickets. While far from the worst example, the Odeon's 3 'booking fee' for a family ticket to The Fantastic Mr Fox last month was sneakily added at the final credit card stage online, a costly trick that misleads customers as to the total price of the entertainment. This is a subject to which I will be returning, unlike venues that squeeze the last drops of cash out of the pleasure-seeking public.