Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 15:08 UK

Are children more likely to survive plane crashes?

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

A 12-year-old girl survived the Yemeni plane crash, the latest in a line of children to escape death in an air disaster. So do youngsters have a better chance of living when a plane goes down?

Yemen air crash survivor
The sole survivor of the Yemenia airliner crash was found in the sea

Rescuers are scouring the Indian Ocean off the coast of east Africa after a passenger jet crashed with 153 people on board.

The plane had been en route from Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to the Comoros Islands, when it went down in bad weather.

So far only one has been found, a 12-year-old girl, but she's not the first example of a child being alone in living through a plane crash.

In 2003 a three-year-old boy was the only survivor of a plane crash in Sudan which killed 116, in 1995 a nine-year-old girl was alone in living through a mid-air explosion on board a flight over Colombia.

Two years later, a Thai boy was the lone survivor of a Vietnam Airlines crash which killed 65 and in 1998 a 10-year-old boy was alone in surviving a Taiwanese jet crash which killed 196. However, he died shortly afterwards.

FROM BBC WORLD SERVICE

So do children have a better chance of surviving plane crashes? It's a question that leaves safety experts perplexed and in want of hard evidence to answer with any certainty.

But although unclear, there are reasons to suggest some children fare better than others, depending on their size.

Prof Ed Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, suggests small children bigger than infants but not too tall would be cocooned within their seat and therefore might be less likely to receive body injuries.

"With an adult with their head above the seat and legs on the floor, the chances are you'll receive some sort of injury from debris landing on your head and legs flailing around. You're more prone to broken limbs," he says.

"A youngster in their own seat... might be less likely to receive body injuries. They are more or less cocooned in a solid, rigid environment."

He says it's possible this applies to any seat but is more likely to have a bearing in modern "16G" kinds designed to withstand deceleration impacts up to 16-times people's body weight. Those seats have only been introduced in the last few years.

But he says air travel is probably more dangerous for infants because of the way they are carried on the laps of their parents and in extension belts attached to their parents' belts.

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? Aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

Prof Galea says: "Sometimes they're just held by their parents and people don't realise the G-forces they're exposed to. The decelerations increase the apparent weight of the child, so while you feel comfortable holding them, when decelerating it becomes very hard to hold on... the child can be bouncing around the aircraft."

The same thing happens when there's unexpected turbulence and babies restrained in extension belts do no better because in a crash the parent's body typically bends forwards crushing the child, he says.

Physiologically there is no reason why children should survive a plane crash over an adult, he adds, and anyone falling at a great height is unlikely to survive.

But he suggests falls shortly after take off or approaching landing may stack in the child's favour.

"It would be miraculous to survive that, but there have been cases of people falling into trees. I would suggest a smaller body mass would mean it's more likely the tree would break your fall," he explains.

Mike Hayes, head of research and development at the Child Accident Prevention Trust, says in some other circumstances children might fare better than adults, but it is a grey area.

SURVIVING AN AIR CRASH
Life-threatening accidents occur once every 5.7 million departures
Almost 56% survive such an event
Excluding accidents in which everyone dies, more than 71% survive
22% of 459 people in a survey could correctly identify the number of exits and the fact they vary in size on short-haul aircraft
Source: University of Greenwich

"Generally there's an issue as you get older with your bones becoming more brittle, but I don't know what the optimum age is. You're probably strongest in your 20s," he says.

"The problem with children is that because they're still growing, protective devices have to be adapted to them."

He says in car seats they have seat straps over both shoulders and their rib cages, giving more protection than an adult would have, but that didn't necessarily mean they were safer.

In falls from windows and down stairs, he saw no reason why children should come out better than adults, although he suggests their rib cages may be more flexible.

"I've heard in immersion in cold water, a child's body system may shut down and allow them to survive more than an adult," he says.

"But the reverse is also true, a child will burn itself because its skin is thinner... there are minuses as well as pluses in being a child."



Print Sponsor


WHO, WHAT, WHY? ARCHIVE
 


RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific