Updated 12/05/22: This article has been updated to correct the description of why the TIRE committee prepared the June technical advisory; to note that the advisory applies to guide-operated brakes as well as hand brakes; and to add a definition for what constitutes a “primary” brake.
Can ACCT codify what it takes to hand brake successfully without diminishing the experience it seeks to protect?
The winds of change are swirling around hand braking in the zip line world. The ACCT technical paper on hand braking signaled a new, more nuanced approach to guest safety by the standards writers within the organization. The draft proposed ANSI/ACCT standard, released Nov. 25 and open for public comment through Jan. 9, makes that approach more concrete. The draft allows specific types of braking systems for each of three landing-zone speed ranges. At some point, and possibly soon, some variation on the draft standard will be enacted, with real impacts on many, if not most, zip lines that involve hand braking.
That makes it essential for operators of hand braking tours to review the draft and provide comments on it.
As we reported in Fall 2022 issue of Adventure Park Insider (“Hand Braking Discussion Heats Up,” Park Briefs), the ACCT Technical Information, Research, and Education (TIRE) committee released a technical advisory on human-operated braking systems—i.e., hand braking by participants as well as brakes operated by guides. The advisory noted that the arrival speed of the rider (participant or staff) is critical to minimizing risk of injury, and that injuries increase in severity with higher arrival speeds. It also stated that smaller and shorter zip lines with arrival speeds of 6 mph or less, where gravity serves as the primary brake, do not require other brake systems, as the risk of injury at these low speeds is minimal.
To reduce the incident rate, it recommended against relying on participants “to provide the primary brake,” and noted that hand braking “must be backed up on lines with arrival speeds above 6 mph.” The draft standard goes further, stating that hand braking cannot serve as the primary brake. (Read the full advisory and the draft standard at acctinfo.org.)
Keep in mind that “primary,” in its usage in the advisory and draft standard, means “more important than anything else” in differentiating between types of braking systems. At arrival speeds of less than 6 mph, for example, hand braking is not considered more important to stopping than anything else, and is therefore not considered the primary brake.
That said, applying the new standards’ landing-zone speed ranges to existing operations can become complicated, expensive, and for some operators, perhaps unnecessary.
ACCT’s draft proposed standard could affect up to 90 percent of hand braking tours, estimates industry veteran and certified ACCT inspector John (JT) Turman of Ascent Collaborative Services, requiring them to modify their courses regardless of their safety record. The draft “makes it tough on those that have been running well for a long time,” he says.
On the other hand, while Turman has inspected some tours that are “fast and are fine,” he’s also seen incident reviews where “so many tours are just a little too fast for hand braking.” To that end, Turman does see the need for additional and/or more reliable braking systems on faster lines. “It’s inconsistent to rely on a guest for whom it’s a first time hand braking,” he says.
Clearly, there’s a need to address these too-fast tours. Can that be done without forcing changes to tours with a good safety record?
STANDARD: ARRIVAL SPEED IS KEY
The draft standard’s three speed ranges for arrival in the landing zone are 0-6 mph, 6 to 15 mph, and 15 mph or more. It notes that no brake system is required for the low-speed range. It requires both primary and secondary braking for the medium speed zone. Hand braking cannot be considered a primary or emergency brake, but is allowed for speed control for both these zones. For medium arrival speeds, guide-activated braking can be a primary brake. For landing speeds of more than 15 mph, no active braking by participants or guides is allowed; both primary and emergency brakes must be passive.
“Due to the inability of staff to physically intervene with participant actions when a participant is on a zip line, zip line brake systems shall not depend on participant actions to provide the primary brake,” the draft standard declares. It adds, “Active braking is permitted by guides. Unlike participants, guides are trained individuals for whom zip line riding and the operation of zip line brakes is a regular part of their job.”
The standard does permit hand braking for arrival speeds up to 15 mph. “At predicted rider speeds below 15 mph (24 km/h) the designer may include approaches that enable participants to interact with the zip line or surrounding environment in order to decrease speed as a supplement to the primary brake,” the draft states. “Approaches include and are not limited to hand braking, striding foot arrest, and participant trolley braking. Participant interaction shall not be permitted on high-speed zip lines.”
The draft standard adds, “An emergency brake shall require no action by any person,” although active reset is allowed.
HISTORY OF SPEED
The range of arrival speeds has grown over the past 20 years as zip lines and tours have evolved. Many early hand braking lines and tours in Central and North America consisted of many, shorter lines (100-150 feet long) and lower speeds. Hand braking was relatively easy and practical.
“We didn’t envision people going 1,200 feet,” says Michael R. Smith, an early builder and currently owner of hand braking tour Arbortrek Canopy Adventures. “It was more about being in nature, not going as fast as we could.”
As zip tours evolved, though, zip lines got longer and faster. Some hand braking lines are 1,800 feet or more, and participants reach higher speeds than on those earlier designs. Longer lines are more subject to environmental influences, like wind, and that expands the range of potential arrival speeds.
To accommodate those wider speed ranges, some of these longer/faster hand braking tours have been retrofitted with guide-operated or passive automatic brake systems. And some have not.
And that’s where we find ourselves today.
A FRAMEWORK FOR CONSIDERATION
TIRE committee member Kathy Haras, vice president of Adventureworks! Associates, recently gave Adventure Park Insider her personal view of the issues involved, outlining the pros and cons and other considerations around hand braking.
“I can speak only for myself,” she wrote in an email, observing that when it comes to hand braking, “There aren’t two views—there’s a whole bunch of views. And the details really, really, really matter.
“I want/like/enjoy/prefer when participants hand brake. I think much of the meaningful involvement that separates our field from amusement rides disappears when participants do not engage in skill-based tasks.
“That said, there are hazards when participants hand brake. The hazard profile increases with speed. So, if hand braking is to be done by participants,
- It should only be done at lower speeds. Not all speeds are appropriate for participant hand braking, but some absolutely are.
- At some speeds, an error in handbraking may lead to injury. Below 6 mph the rider is moving slowly enough that a non-braking event isn’t a major concern, but at speeds above 6 mph, impact with the support structure begins to become problematic.
“For me, risk = likelihood [of non-braking]x severity + public outrage.” She notes that there’s a likelihood of non-braking, and that severe incidents, while rare, can provoke public outrage.
Haras acknowledges, though, that no brake system is perfect. “Passive braking isn’t perfect. Neither is guide-operated braking. Each of these has a different hazard profile than participant hand braking. All of these brake systems are appropriate in the right context.”
“The ideal,” she argues, “is matching the right brake system with the right context.” And when it comes to hand braking, “Sometimes the value of the experience outweighs the risk. Sometimes it doesn’t. And knowledge about how speed interacts with rider experience profile can help everyone make more informed decisions.”
The question is, how risky is hand braking? How much trust can one have in the ability of the guest to hand brake? Views differ widely. Operators such as Eric Lapchenko of Hocking Hills Canopy Tours and Smith of Arbortrek say that most guests readily become sufficiently skilled at hand braking. Others in the industry say that the incidence of lawsuits and claims shows that guests are unreliable.
The problem, for both standards writers and operators of hand braking zip lines and tours, is how to make poorly designed or incident-prone installations less incident-prone, without adding unnecessary operational burdens to well-designed and low-incident operations. It’s a tough problem, because the details are not easily codified. It’s extremely difficult to fill in the specifics in Haras’s risk equation, and to determine when the value of the hand-braking experience outweighs the risk.
THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
Many hand braking proponents say the value of the experience is high, and that the experience is significantly different from riding a zip tour with a passive braking system.
Thaddeus Shrader, CEO of Bonsai Designs, which has designed and built many hand braking tours, is one such believer. “What is beautiful about hand braking is the connection that develops between the guide and the participant, and the participant and the experience.
“People want the magic of the experience. They appreciate the opportunity to learn a skill. They feel better, more engaged, and more accomplished at the end of the day. I’m concerned that we’re going to close the door on the experiential element.”
Lapchenko, course manager at Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in Ohio, with two hand-braking tours, agrees that “the guest really enjoys being part of the adventure.”
“To create a peak experience, risk must be properly paired with skill/competency,” says Smith. “If there is too much risk and too little skill, then the result is misadventure. If there is too little risk and too much skill, then boredom ensues. Remove all of the skill and minimize the risk, there’s no opportunity for adventure; there’s only a chance of amusement.”
HOW HIGH IS THE RISK?
So: how high is the risk of non-braking by participants? The risk profile depends not only on the arrival speed but also on several other factors, including the physical attributes of the installation, the athletic ability and mindset of the clientele, the backup braking system and, if applicable, the ability of a guide to operate an active backup system.
Smith and Lapchenko say that most of their guests quickly learn to brake. “It’s not a very complicated thing to hand brake,” Smith notes. Those who can’t, though, can be weeded out during ground school, where each guest has a chance to practice hand braking, and on the early lines on a tour, where speeds are relatively low and consequences of non-braking can be mitigated by the guides.
In addition, Lapchenko says, “The sense of control helps assure some of the hesitant guests. It gives them some sense of security.”
Lapchenko acknowledges that some guests struggle with hand braking at times, and some are not able to hand brake properly as speeds increase. The tour’s backup guide-activated braking system counters that issue.
Additionally, Lapchenko’s guides continually evaluate the guests’ performance and coach guests throughout the tour. They are also empowered to remove participants who the guides feel are not up to the task of braking. All that contributes to the operation’s safety record.
Removals are rare, though. With proper and ample instruction, most people learn to hand brake quickly. As Lapchenko notes, “even people in their late 80s and early 90s have done the course.”
Shrader notes that many guide-activated backup brakes allow the guide to pre-load the system so that lighter/slower participants don’t have a harsh interaction with the brake. That is an advantage over passive systems, which do not have the same capacity to calibrate the braking force to the individual.
Likelihood of serious injury is another key component of the Haras equation. And at many hand braking operations, serious injury is quite unlikely. We spoke to several industry players with long experience in hand braking; all said that serious claims stemming from hand braking tours are relatively infrequent. Lapchenko says that in the 15 years Hocking Hills Canopy Tours has operated its hand braking tours, the number of serious incidents has been “slim to none.”
The common wisdom in the industry is that, overall, more/minor incidents happen on hand braking courses, but more/serious incidents tend to happen on non-hand-braking tours, where speeds can be much higher. As insurance expert Robert Monaghan of Hibbs Hallmark Insurance Agency says, “We still cover hand braking tours, and if the insurance carriers saw any negative trends, they would let us know, by either asking more questions, or … not insuring them.”
Neither of those are the case, he says—but the universe of hand braking courses is relatively small, he adds, so even if there were a high level of serious incidents on hand braking courses, they might be difficult to isolate and identify in the data.
As one person told us, standards want things to be clear as black and white; hand braking is by nature a gray area.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
Members of the TIRE committee—and others—have suggested that zip tours with higher arrival speeds can add backup braking systems, or entire primary and secondary brake systems depending on the arrival speed, and still incorporate hand braking as an operational element for speed control. It’s not a case of either/or, they say, but of using both. That way, participants are still actively involved, and also enjoy the additional (presumed) security of the backup or primary braking system.
“The guest experience of being an active participant in their zip should not be affected by new primary brake standards,” says Rich Klajnscek of Sea Fox Consulting, and a member of the ACCT TIRE committee. “They can hand brake just like before up to a certain speed, but in reality this is only a backup to the actual primary brake.
“This is a design issue, not a programming issue.”
Not everyone sees this as an ideal solution. “Some say, ‘use hand braking, just put primary and secondary brakes behind it.’ But that really changes the experience,” says Smith. “If you put a brake behind the hand braking system, people stop hand braking. It’s the same with padding trees at the landing platform—people think they can hit it. If they feel safe, they behave recklessly.”
“It changes the guest experience,” Hocking Hills’ Lapchenko agrees. “That’s why I feel so strongly about continuing our operation as we have for so long. We believe strongly in our professionally built course, built for hand braking. We’d like to continue operating as we have for 15 years now.”
IT’S (EVEN MORE) COMPLICATED
The new draft standard would affect most hand braking operators in a variety of ways.
To add passive braking components to a hand braking tour, says Smith, “Courses will likely have to raise the zip lines, purchase new trolleys and hope that the new bearing speeds match current design parameters, extend landing areas, run a second cable above the zip line to anchor the brake system, and possibly change the slope and tension of the zip lines—which may require a complete re-design and layout of the course. These retrofits become more difficult as the lengths get longer and tensions on ropes get higher. If the course is up in trees, changing the loads means you have to re-engineer the whole system.”
At Hocking Hills, Lapchenko notes that the proposal “might require different adjustments on different lines.”
And retrofits can be expensive. Turman notes that the cost of a passive brake alone can run between $1,000 and $5,000 per line. And that’s before you add the cost of installation, testing, extending landing zones and platforms or adding other components.
“There’s not an aspect of the business that will not be impacted by a change of this magnitude,” states Smith. “In addition to the cost of retro-fitting the structures, tour cycle times will need to be adjusted, staff will need to be retrained, and operating manuals, marketing, signage, and waivers will need to be rewritten. Smith estimates that the total cost could run as high as $500,000 for some tours.
It is possible to redesign a canopy tour, reducing the pitch of the zip line to create slower arrival speeds. But that’s more expensive than updating the braking system, Turman says, and not a practical solution for most tours.
Operational impacts. Both Smith and Turman note that the addition of passive brakes tends to lead to more retrievals, and that increases the time it takes to complete a tour. “That might mean an operation runs one less tour a day, and that affects revenue,” Turman says.
“Plus, there’s time needed to adopt the new system, and that also slows things down,” he adds. The job of the guides themselves would expand, to include inspection and operation of any passive brake components added to the overall system. That would create the need for additional training as well.
“It’s not just retrofitting a course,” says Lapchenko, “it’s retrofitting a training regimen, and our inspections. It could get very complicated and would affect us in a big way.”
And, for all that, it’s not clear that auto or passive brakes would reduce the incidence of serious injuries. More than one expert we spoke with, including some who are not hand braking advocates, say that the majority of zip lining lawsuits involve automatic or passive braking systems that malfunctioned or weren’t reset properly. Of course, there are more zip tours with auto systems than not, and those courses often entail higher speeds than hand braking courses; both of those factors largely explain the tilt in court cases. But they don’t make the case that auto systems are inherently safer than hand braking, either.
As Shrader says, “the idea is that if you remove hand braking, zip lines will become safer and there’s less liability. But that may not be the case; you’ve just changed the type of issues you have to deal with.”
Even the convention of establishing speed ranges for different braking requirements, which seems logical, is far from simple. Keith Jacobs of ESI notes that it is not easy to measure speeds below 20 mph—radar guns and other tools are not developed to measure slow speeds.
Even if they were, each zip line and zip tour is unique, and environmental conditions can cause arrival speeds to increase or decrease from day to day and hour to hour. Participant behavior can impact zipping and arrival as well. And those effects are not easy to predict or test.
Rather than speed ranges, Jacobs says, “I think a good standard sets a performance requirement—say, that arrival speed must be no faster than six miles an hour, and the brake system has to be reliable. Then it’s up to the manufacturer or engineer to determine how to meet that performance requirement. If the engineer and the designer and the fabricator and the operator can figure out how to meet that design parameter with hand braking, god bless them.”
Jacobs cites ASTM standards for rollercoasters as an example. “There’s a performance requirement for the car, and they don’t tell me as an engineer what kind of brake system I need. They only say that the rollercoaster has to be able to stop appropriately for the speed, and that there must be a redundant braking system in case the primary brake system fails.”
Smith, who frequently serves as an expert witness in lawsuits regarding zip line cases, notes that “most lawsuits that involve hand braking relate to courses that were poorly designed, and on which there were lots of other accidents, too. Writing standards based on these cases is bad policy.”
Instead, he suggests, “A ride hazard analysis would solve a lot of safety issues.
“There are lots of steps we could take before concluding that hand brakes shouldn’t exist,” he concludes.
One of those steps will be to carefully follow the ACCT standards process and consider the merits of the eventual draft proposed standard that emerges. Operators (and others) will have the opportunity to weigh in on it, and ACCT encourages that. Given the potentially big impacts on hand braking operations, it will be important for operators to be heard.