With no state inspection standards in place, how safe are zip lines in Utah?

SALT LAKE CITY -- They are in Kanab, at Sundance Resort, Deer Creek Reservoir, Snowbird Resort and other places in the Beehive state.

Zip lines are growing in popularity year-by-year, but there’s a fact few people realize about the newly popular thrill rides. In a state where day cares, restaurants and buses all go through state inspections, there is no state oversight or inspection on zip lines.

“Everything has a backup safety line, there’s a backup to that backup,” said John Johnson, the owner and operator of Zipline Utah at Deer Creek Reservoir.

Johnson says insurance requirements drive strict safety requirements.

“Every year we have to get inspected by a certified inspector,” Johnson said.

A 15-year study, spanning from 1997 to 2012, published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found 16,850 people went to the emergency room for zip line related injuries. The study included both professional zip lines and backyard zip lines.

In the study, 31% of injuries happened at homes and 69% in public places. Kids under the age of nine were the most often injured, making up 45% of the injuries. Women were more likely than men to be injured, making up 53% of the patients.

The most common injury was broken bones at 47% of the patients. However, the study noted, the overall rate of injuries is relatively low, on par with other adventure sports.

Lisa Christianson of Midvale was hurt last August at Zipline Utah.

“It broke kind of right up in here, so then this, the plate goes up in here,” said Christianson while pointing to her left ankle.

She came in too fast and struck a pole, noting she had trouble using her hand to brake as instructed.

“I had to have surgery to kind of put those bones back together, so I now have a plate and six screws,” Christianson said.

Her story highlights a key component of protecting yourself. When you choose to ride a zip line: you own some of the responsibility for staying safe.

At Zipline Utah, there are posters demonstrating the proper riding position, which is leaning back with your feet raised. It is part of the safety talk delivered before any rider straps onto the line and is demonstrated by an instructor.

“If you maintain that proper seating position with your knees up, you won’t be able to hit anything,” said Johnson as a co-worker demonstrated the ‘emergency brake’ guides used to slow a rider coming in too fast. However, the system relies on each individual rider following the guidelines.

“It’s a very natural instinct if you’re coming at pole at 20 miles per hour, you want to stick your foot out try to stop you,” Johnson said.

That decision can be costly.

“I just stuck my leg out and hit the pole,” Christianson said.

She did cross a rope bridge after the injury and climbed down a pole to the ground, waiting for her group to finish the zip line course before seeking medical help. She never reported the extent of her injury to the owner of Zipline Utah.

“I feel like I was doing my part,” Christianson said.

Though there are not state inspectors checking zip lines for safety, if the operator is a member of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, there are stringent requirements. Safety lines have to have backups, and the clips attaching a rider to the line all have to be American-made.

Checking if the zip line is ACCT certified is not the only thing you need to consider. Zipline Utah markets itself as an adventure experience. The full course is two miles long with seven rope bridges and 10 zip lines. It can be strenuous with multiple climbs on twisting staircases up narrow poles.

“You need to know what your limits are, you need to know if you want to do something that’s more hands-on or more of the amusement park style ride,” Johnson said.

By comparison, the zip line at Sundance is accessed by a chairlift. There are short walks between some lengths of the zip line and a few stairs.

All zip lines will have requirements for riders. Most post the requirements online. Read carefully before you go, as some zip lines will be a better fit for some riders.