once risked all in
pursuit of a dream, or so our legends say. But in the last half
century we seem to have become frightened of risk. Some think
making our lives "perfectly safe" is a goal, though
that is impossible.
enough, savvy managers have learned how to play on our fears
for their own gain.
one obvious arena. The most studied mode of travel is surely
airplanes. They are the safest way per mile of getting around,
except for elevators. Yet even there, where safety is invoked
continually, it's not really not the byword.
example, it is safer to face the passengers toward the rear of
the plane during landing, as is done on military transports.
The most important part of those flight attendant announcements
you hear is when they point out the exits. Knowing ahead of the
emergency where to go makes a dramatic difference in your chances
if you must evacuate. Next, do keep your seat belt tightened.
Nasty turbulence can indeed injure you.
much of the rest of the announcement they design to reassure
you, not to actually do you any good. Don't bother to
look for that life-jacket under your seat, for example. "In
the event of landing on water," as the announcement says,
if you have to use your life jacket, your flight would be the
first flight to ever do so.
have those inflatable slides been used in an ocean landing, because
no wide-bodied aircraft has ever survived going down at sea.
Ladies may keep their high-heeled shoes on, too, for none has
ever punctured a slide at sea.
jackets are bright yellow because they are easier to spot on
bodies strewn across rough ground and forests. That is why deep
in India I was told to put on the jacket, hundreds of miles from
the sea. The landing gear was not working well, and the airplane
swerved off the landing strip, into a rice paddy within view
of the Taj Mahal. But just in case, everybody had a yellow jacket
to assume a head-down semi-fetal position in an emergency landing
is not about surviving the impact. Rather, it preserves dental
work better, all the better to identify smashed corpses. No one
survives when jets hit the ground at several hundred miles per
those electronic devices you must turn off after the hatch seals?
No evidence exists showing that they interfere with navigation
or communication in the air. It's the same for cell phones, as
the events of September 11, 2001 should have taught us. Many
passengers called home from the doomed airplanes, but this did
not disrupt their flying or bother the terrorist pilots. The
real reason to turn off cell phones is their interference with
mobile networks on the ground. This occurs mostly as planes taxi
around airports. If they were really dangerous, lawyer-terrified
airlines would not allow them in the cabin at all.
video warning of swelling legs and potentially fatal deep-vein
thrombosis is there to limit liability to lawsuits. Alcohol is
available mostly to raise revenue and keep you mildly sedated,
so you move around the cabin less, further limiting airlines'
liability. If passengers become agitated, pilots can and do lower
the oxygen content of the cabin air to take the wind out of passenger
sails, so to speak.
about the persistent rumor that if you sit at the back of an
airplane, you are safer in a crash?
argue that the rear seats have better odds of survival because
airplanes tend to plunge in nose first. Others say the wing section
must be safer, since it is more structurally stable.
of these ideas are true. Crashes are so different, with so many
variables in play, that it is impossible to say that one seat
is safer than another. Part of this result comes from a familiar
scientific problem: the data isn't good enough to tell. Most
countries do not have agencies to investigate every crash. Even
with detailed information, like seating maps, passengers move
around in flight. Investigators have difficulty being sure where
people were sitting or standing on impact.
Still, you can better your odds.
About 60 percent of accidents occur while planes are descending
or taking off. The rest happen when the plane is climbing, about
35 percent. So rather than choosing where you sit, simple reasoning
says that it is best to fly nonstop. That reduces exposure
to these accident-prone stages of flight. It is the single choice
you can make to reduce your risk--yet airlines never mention
planes are also safer, so take a big airplane if you can and
avoid local "hopper" flights. Big planes undergo stricter
safety regulations, and also have more structure to absorb energy
since there is no evidence that flying in the back of a plane
is any safer than sitting up front, why do these ideas persist?
in the back, you suffer with the noise, the bathroom traffic
, a bumpier ride as the tail rides up and down in turbulence,
the whole airplane pivoting around the axis of the wings. You
also know you will be the last passenger to exit the plane. That's
why airlines have trouble filling those seats. But if people
believe those seats are safer...
simple points show that almost everything done in a cabin is
either to avoid lawsuits or lessen trouble with passengers. But
safety plays well, so the announcements always invoke it. They're
counting on the docile public not looking beneath the veil of
safety, and facing reality.