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

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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