Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2007

 

RISK AND THE REAL WORLD

Gregory Benford

Americans 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.

So naturally enough, savvy managers have learned how to play on our fears for their own gain.

Consider 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.

For 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.

But 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.

Never 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.

The 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 on.

Advice 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 hour.

How about 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.

The in-flight 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.

How about the persistent rumor that if you sit at the back of an airplane, you are safer in a crash?

Some 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.

None 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 this.

Larger 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 on impact.

So 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?

Sitting 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...

These 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.

 

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