Are seat belts in planes really useful?

Are seat belts in planes really useful?

Seat-belts were invented in the late 19th century and were designed for car safety. They started to be popular after the 1920s, when Nils Bohlin, the Swedish engineer and inventor designed the three-point lap and shoulder seat belt and race drivers started including them into their cars. The reason to have seat belts on cars is to avoid getting hurt in an eventual sudden stop or to avoid jumping around the car when driving on very bumpy surfaces.

But what is the reason of having seat belts on airplanes? Are they really useful? Do they actually save lives when an airplane crashes?  Are they really useful when taking off and landing? Or when exactly are the seat belts good for the safety of the passengers? We have all flown and have been told that we should keep the seat belt on while the seat belt sign is illuminated. On the other hand, we can say that most of people have changed their seat  in the middle of the flight looking for more space and comfort to stretch their legs. So, do they really save lives? Are they really a part of inflight security and have to be worn all the time while you are in the plane?

The discussion has been going for some time now.  Some people claim that seat belts on airplanes are only necessary in order to identify passengers after an accident, because passengers remain in their seats and can be easily identified with their seat numbers. This is not completely true. As a matter a fact, it is not true at all. Heather Poole, an American air stewardess and the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers, says that it is impossible to control passengers and to always have them seated in their designated seats as they move around and look for a better place to seat and relax in mid-air; also, some airlines don’t even give seat assignments, they have a policy of handing out seats as people arrive.  Even more, flight attendants and passenger tend to wander around the plane or go to the bathroom, and there are no seat belts on the bathroom toilet, so how would they be identified in a possible air accident?

Airbus A321_seat belt_aviation law_shahram shirkhani
Image courtesy of alobos Life at Flickr.com

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the UK budget airline Ryanair, says that the law that forces passengers to wear a seat belt is totally stupid, useless and unnecessary. In his own words “If there ever was a crash on an aircraft, God forbid, a seat belt won’t save you.” He compares many means of transportation to airplanes saying that people don’t need a seat belt on the London underground or on the New York Train system, or even on trains that reach speeds between 120 mph and 360 mph. He has compared planes with big buses. People are told that seat belts are also very useful when the plane is taking off or landing, to which Michael O’Leary gives his counter argument saying that people can just “hang on” very tightly when the plane is performing such maneuvers. He is so totally convinced of the pointlessness of seat belts, that he wants to be able to sell “standing only” tickets for students and travelers who are looking to really save money on their air fares, by selling £1 tickets to European destinations. He thinks that the problem with aviation regulation is that it has been designed by old school players and that it is time to make a change.

To not get very worried about it, seat belts will still be in place for flight and regulations will remain the same for long, as there has not been a different ruling until now. The real reason people should wear seat belts on planes is turbulence. We have all experienced hard turbulence and some may be asking themselves if it is really that hard that you have to always wear that sometimes uncomfortable seat belt. The answer is yes. It is not the fact that the passenger goes flying up to the ceiling of the plane, it is the other way around: the plane comes down at you at very high velocity, suddenly and with no warning at all. The plane drops on passengers, and it drops hard, hitting people on the head and causing serious, and sometimes fatal, injuries. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, between 1980 and 2008 there were only 234 accidents involving turbulence and from these incidents, unfortunately, 3 were fatal. Most of the 234 incidents occurred to crew members when turbulence hit unexpectedly in an event called clear air turbulence.

So, maybe Michael O’Leary is right, a seat belt will not save you from an airplane crash; and Heather Poole has very good arguments as passengers just move around as they please. But both of them agree that turbulence does cause injuries and sometimes fatal ones. Michael O’Leary says that he understands that there are some heavy turbulence areas that should be avoided and Heather Poole claims that “turbulence is no joke”. Some reasons to always wear seat belts even when the sign is off and to not stand up so often in mid-air.

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