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Sat, Jun.25.2005:04:25 PM

MythBusters: Killer Brace Position and Cellphones vs Drunk Driving

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Myths tested:

  • The brace position on airlines increases chance of death: mythbusted
  • Talking on a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as drunk driving: confirmed

Read on for more episode details.

Killer Brace Position

Myth: The reason that airlines tell you to get into the brace position is because it increases your chance of dying -- it is cheaper to pay out for death than injury.

120 people are killed and 350 are seriously injured in commercial airline crashes.

According to the MythBuster research department, it is cheaper to pay out wrongful death settlements ($3M-5M) than to pay for injuries ($8M-50M over the course of the victim's lifetime).

Tested with three seat configurations:

  • Economy seats
  • First class seats
  • Rear-facing flight attendant seat

They interviewed Richard Deweese at the FAA/Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. He showed off a test sled that they use for crash simulation that gets to 14Gs in 80ms, and they showed video of the dummies being flung forward.

Test setup:

  • Drop the seat rig from a crane
  • 15 ft off the ground
  • 30-40Gs of impact
  • 35 ft/s at impact (replicates speed as FAA setup)
  • Used Buster and some extra 'simulaid' dummies. The simulaid dummies are the correct weight, but not distributed like a human body, so not quite as sophisticated as Buster.

Grant rigged up a new neck for Buster, as Buster's regular neck does not bend backwards. The new neck contains a potentiometer that measures the neck's angle.

Economy seats

  • No brace position: seats were completely trashed, hit at 41 ft/s. The frame took 21Gs. Buster's body took less than 50Gs of impact, and his head took 56.4Gs. Neither were deadly injuries -- it takes 100Gs to the head to sustain major trauma. There was one major injury: Buster's leg came off (broken femur).
  • Brace position: 35Gs to Buster's head -- 20Gs less than the unbraced position -- and there was less neck deflection. Buster's leg broke off again.

Only 20% die on impact in a plane crash. 80% of people survive, but the rest die from smoke inhalation and fire damage, so the broken leg injuries are significant.

First class seats

They only tested with the brace position with the first class seats. This was one of the more satisfying drops, as Buster's leg went flying (broke both the femur and tib-fib) and a seat phone went flying as well. Still less than 50Gs to the body. 43Gs to Buster's head. Almost no neck deflection.

Back-facing flight attendant seat

They didn't test with the brace position with the back-facing flight attendant seat. Buster's neck hardly moved, but there was 87.4Gs of impact to the head, and the 50G meters tripped on Buster's body.

Dr. Strap crash survival research program. Humans can take more Gs in the backwards position, topping out at 85Gs. However, the main problem with backwards facing seat is that debris from the impact will fly towards your face after impact.

With Real MythBusters

Kari, Adam, and Tory were dropped in the economy seats. For obvious safety purposes (visions of Buster's legs flying off), they were dropped from 5 ft instead of 15.

Kari: "I promosed my mom I wouldn't do anything dumb and unsafe again." "I would like to say I'm sorry to you mom and dad. I dunno. I'm a little stupid."

Tory: "I'd go higher."

None of them were serious injured, but they were definitely banged up.


Brace position was safer than sitting upright. As for the seats, the flight attendant seat safest, followed by first class, then economy.

According to the FAA guy, using the brace position is 3 times safer than sitting upright.


Cellphone vs. Drunk Driving

Myth: It is just as dangerous to talk on a cellphone as it is to drive drunk.

A British study that asked subjects to do memory tests, reasoning, and mental arithmetic, found that cellphone use did hurt driving. The study also compared it to drunk driving, though Adam didn't describe the exact results of that comparison.

For this mythbusting, they wanted to focus on the talking aspect of cellphones, instead of dialing, as drivers would some sense to them would dial when the car was not moving.

For the test they used Kari and Adam as the test drivers and they went to Infineon Raceway near Sonoma. The test course had four parts:

  • Accelerate to 30mph and then stop at a stop sign.
  • Parallel park
  • Time trial: average 15mph through the whole course (not faster or slower)
  • Accident avoidance: while going 30mph, told to switch to left, right, or center lane

Each part was graded by an instructor who was in the car with them.

Sober/Control Run

Both Adam and Kari passed the course, though Kari had a bit of trouble parallel parking.

Cellphone Run

For the cellphone run, Jamie talked to the driver on a cellphone asking three types of questions:

  • repeat the sentence (e.g. "The driver was stopped for driving 67mph in a 20mph zone")
  • verbal puzzle "If Jack stole Ann's ball, who's the thief", and the more difficult, "If you see a picture with a diamond, rectangle, and a circle, and the circle is to the right of the rectangle, and directly above the diamond, is the rectangle right above the diamond?"
  • list five things about a particular subject "Give me five things that are in the interior of your car," "Give me five things that are part of your daily work."

Kari failed, including offenses such as using her elbow to steer and failing over half of the obstacles. Adam failed as well.

FYI: Kari's answers to "give things that are part of your dialy work" included: "Kissing ass" and "doing my hair." Adam's daily work list included the more boring: "drilling and tapping," "making phone calls," "Checking my e-mail," "avoiding phone calls from certain people."

Drunk Driving Run

Both Adam and Kari got their blood alcohol level to just below 0.08 (legal limit), with police officers on hand to do the breathalyzer. Neither Adam nor Kari had eaten, so both were as hungry as they were tipsy.

Kari zipped through the stop sign, but her parallel parking was "one of her best efforts... marginally good." She went too fast through the time trial part and killed a couple cones. She failed again, but not as bad as with the cellphone test.

Adam failed the parking test, and "half failed" the time trial for not looking both ways. Overall he failed as well.


The cellphone tests were failed by a much bigger margin, though Adam's observation was that you can put down a cellphone -- you can't get instantly undrunk. Also, they tested the drunk driving below the California legal limit -- Adam, at least, has gotten much drunker for MythBuster tests than that.


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That would be "can't get instantly undrunk."

Posted by: Alex at June 26, 2005 08:05 AM
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