Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 10:43 UK

Are children more likely to survive plane crashes?

The Magazine answers...

A boy is the sole survivor of the Libyan plane crash - the latest in a line of children to escape death in an air disaster. So do young people have a better chance of living when a plane goes down?

Survivor of Tripoli plane crash
Libyan TV showed the child survivor receiving hospital treatment

While officials in Libya investigate the plane crash that killed 103 people at Tripoli airport, the Dutch foreign ministry is trying to confirm reports that the only survivor, who is said to be aged 10, is from the Netherlands.

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.


And in 2009, Baya Bakari, whose age was given as between 12 and 14, was the only passenger aboard an airliner that crashed in Yemen to escape with her life.

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.

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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.

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."

A version of this story was first published in July 2009.

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