It’s fair season in Montana, and that means folks across the state are gearing up for a days-long overload of carnival games, fried food and, of course, rides.

But, as you turn the kids loose to get their thrills on attractions with names like the Zipper, the Scrambler and the Tilt-a-Whirl, you might be wondering just how safe those rides really are.

When I was a kid, my brother and I had to beg our parents to even think about letting us ride the Ferris wheel. Pharaoh’s Fury? Forget about it.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize that their reservations about fair rides were not totally unfounded. After all, more than 7,000 Americans are sent to the emergency room every year after getting injured on mobile or inflatable rides, according to the federal government.

It might not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things — millions of people attend fairs and carnivals each year — but it’s definitely worth a second thought, especially when you consider the fact that the inspection of carnival rides is not federally regulated.

The manufacturing of such rides is governed by a set of federal regulations, but it’s up to each state to oversee the way the equipment is set up and maintained.

Some states enforce their own inspection regulations, some require private inspections performed by a third party, some — like Idaho and Washington — have a mixture of state and private oversight, and some have no inspection or maintenance requirements at all. Guess which group Montana belongs to?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our state is one of six that do not require any sort of inspection of carnival or amusement park rides. Ride operators are trained to inspect the machinery they use, but as a customer, it pays for you to be observant as well.

If a ride appears to be off-balance or unstable, or if it is making unusual noises, it might not be a bad idea to skip it. If you do choose to go on a ride, be sure to wear proper clothing and shoes (no flip-flops or dangly items), use all safety restraints and follow instructions. Also, make sure the ride is completely over before exiting the area, as many injuries occur because people exit while the equipment is still moving.

If all else fails, there’s no shame in grabbing a corn dog and hanging out by the games all day.

Brooke is a 2010 graduate of The University of Montana, where she ran track and cross country for the Grizzlies. She is currently working as a writer and editor in Missoula.

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