BY GEORGE HOBICA
If you fly on a commercial airliner and listen to the safety demo (most people don’t listen, of course), you may wonder why the video or crew instructs you how to use the seatbelt.
The instructions have been the butt of many a comedian’s joke (“In case you haven’t been in a car since 1965,” as Jerry Seinfeld quips in one of his stand-up routines.
But that’s precisely the problem. You have been in a car lately; in fact, you probably unbuckled a car seatbelt an hour before boarding your plane, and may have done so dozens of times in the days before your flight.
In a panic
But car seatbelts work differently from the “lift the buckle” way that airplane seatbelts release.
And believe it or not, in a panicked emergency, passengers who might not be thinking clearly because they’re disoriented or mentally incapacitated – barely awake before a 6 a.m. takeoff, jetlagged after a long flight, or under the influence of Ambien or alcohol – have been known to reach to the right or left near their thighs, as you would in an automobile, trying to push a seatbelt release button rather reaching for their laps and lifting a flap.
In other words, previously established “muscle memory” works against you in a crisis.
Every second counts
How do I know this? Not only have flight attendants told me it happens, but I, someone who travels thousands of miles a year, have done the exact same thing at the end of a 12-hour flight with little sleep as I attempt to release the seatbelt.
Because every second counts when evacuating a plane, any confusion could cost lives.
In fact, pilots are known to practice muscle memory in the cockpit, touching levers and fingering buttons before takeoff so that in an emergency they will remember where the controls are located and be able to act quicker.
Something to think about the next time your nose is buried in a newspaper during the safety demo.
George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing website Airfarewatchdog.com.