Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Go Outside


(Photo: wastes/Flickr)

Should You Watch That Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration?

• July 07, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: wastes/Flickr)

Nearly a third of all airplane deaths are preventable, but in the decisive moment most of us will freeze up.

Admit it, you don’t watch either. There you are, sitting in 28 J—middle seat, damn you TAM—from Sao Paolo to JFK, happily watching the beginning of Shadow Recruit, when Chris Pine’s face is suddenly replaced by some cheerful stock actress telling you about the exit row doors and the oxygen masks and whatever else you’ve already heard, and ignored, before. You reach down and check your phone, hoping there’s some signal from a stray tower in the skies. There isn’t, so you play Flappy Golf for a few minutes until Pine’s pained expression returns and you can get on with your B-level action movie and enjoy the rest of your flight in peace. The plane isn’t going to crash anyway. And if it does, you’re surely not going to survive (unless Denzel Washington is your pilot), in which case all the knowledge in the world won’t really help, right?

Well, not exactly.

Plane crashes are much safer than they used to be. Between 1962 and 1981, among crashes that had at least one fatality, 54 percent of the people on board died. Between 1982 and 2009, that percentage dropped to 39, a decrease credited to wider bodied planes that are safer and to Sully Sullenberger. Perhaps more to the point, 76 percent of people in crashes survive.

Perhaps better practice for a plane crash would be throwing yourself into some other panic-inducing scenario and seeing how you react. Try scuba-diving or going on Jeopardy!

If knowledge is power, even in the event of a water landing, airlines are spending huge amounts of money in an attempt to help you pay attention. And that’s perhaps not a surprise since a 2001 National Transportation Safety Board study reported that 69 percent of passengers failed to watch the entire video due to boredom and/or already knowing everything.

When done right, these things gain some amount of traction. Delta created a viral success based mostly, as far as I can tell, on the fact that the actress in question is pretty. Air New Zealand had a bunch of nude people giving instructions. (Nothing about avoiding seat belt chaffing, which seems like an oversight.) “It was overwhelming, with 99.9 percent of the reaction positive,” Steve Bayliss, the airline’s general manager of marketing, said, which is his job. “What it has done for the airline was quite amazing. It was really innovative and shows we are up to trying new things.”

Other carriers have followed suit. Digiday will let you vote on which safety video is best. Gizmodo just went ahead and told you.

But does any of this really matter? Some people think it does. “Up to 30 percent of the deaths in plane crashes are preventable if passengers know what to do, according to experts,” Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club, told Freakonomics in 2009. “In other words, you can make a difference in saving your life in a plane crash (or virtually any situation).”

But also:

In fact, one of the most surprising things you’ll encounter in a disaster is inaction. Believe it or not, but most people do nothing. They’re bewildered. In a stupor, they wait for instructions. Experts say that 80 percent of us are likely to respond this way with so-called “behavioral inaction.” Only 10 percent act quickly and decisively. Fortunately, just 10 percent of us act dangerously or counterproductively.

This would suggest that it doesn’t matter how much you know or how prepared you are: Some people are going to freeze in a given situation and some will jump into action. Perhaps better practice for a plane crash would be throwing yourself into some other panic-inducing scenario and seeing how you react. Try scuba-diving or going on Jeopardy!

So yeah, watch the safety video or don’t. It’s probably not going to make much difference if the plane starts going down. Chris Pine turns out fine, by the way.

Noah Davis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.

December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.

December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.

December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.

December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.

December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.

December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?

December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.

December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.

December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.

December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.

December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.

December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.

December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.

December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.

December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.

December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.

December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.

December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.

Follow us

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.