By Andrea Romano
November 06, 2019

It’s no secret that seat belts save lives.

Most people wouldn’t think twice about buckling up in a car. Statistics have shown that seat belts are instrumental in keeping riders safe. And with all of the driving that we do, why wouldn’t we want to make our commutes safer?

For some reason, when it comes to airplanes, the same logic doesn’t seem to apply. While there are plenty of people out there who always buckle up for their entire plane ride, there are a lot of travelers who instantly release the buckle as soon as the seat belt sign is off – regardless of whether they need to get up or not.

Of course, if you do need to walk around the airplane for a quick stretch or to go to the lavatory, unbuckling is naturally required, but so many of us end up returning to our seats without buckling again. And this could be a big problem if anything were to shake or damage the plane.

Honestly, some people don’t need a lot of convincing when it comes to wearing a seat belt. Sometimes it just feels natural while traveling. Others, however, could probably learn a thing or two about how buckling your seat belt is the most important thing you can do on a plane — way more important than packing hand sanitizer or ordering the perfect cocktail.

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Airplane Seat Belt Design

You’ve probably already noticed that your airplane seat belt isn’t quite as comprehensive as the one in your car. Moreover, you might have heard that pilots and crew also get shoulder straps in addition to the lap belt. Did you know there is a real reason for the different airplane belt designs?

According to Atlas Obscura, these “lift lever” belts have been around since before airplanes existed, but they became common in airplanes by the 1930s and 1940s. The reason they stuck with the “lift lever” design is not only because they’re cost-effective (the materials are very light and cheap), but they're also made to help you during minor disturbances and events onboard. Sadly, a seat belt is unlikely to save you if the plane actually crashes. “You can survive a car crash in which the car is totaled; your chances of survival in an equivalent plane crash are significantly less rosy,” said Atlas Obscura.

But the simple belts are helpful in situations such as turbulence (mild or even severe), small collisions (on the runway, for instance), or rocking. According to Business Insider in 2013, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at the Federal Aviation Administration found that 58 U.S. passengers are injured annually due to not wearing seat belts while on airplanes.

Related: This Is What Happens When You Leave Your Belongings Behind on a Plane

The Myths About Seat Belts

Perhaps the biggest reason why people don’t use their seat belts on planes is because they’re “ineffective” in the event of a crash. While this may be true in extreme circumstances, small accidents such as planes colliding with each other while taxiing on the runway can also lead to injury for non-seatbelt wearers.

According to the Telegraph, there are actually quite a few myths people still believe about airplane seat belts, including the notion that they’re only used to identify passengers after a fatal accident.

“That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard,” said Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers, to the Telegraph. “Passengers switch seats all the time and we're not chasing them down trying match up names to seat numbers.”

Poole also noted that some airlines, like Southwest Airlines, do not have seat assignments, making this idea completely moot.

Other people have questioned wearing a seat belt in flight due to the belief that they hinder evacuation. After all, if there’s a fire in the cabin, you’d want to get out as quick as possible, right? Fiddling with a seat belt can make things worse, according to people who believe this myth.

In reality, industry experts have discredited this idea that seat belts would be the main problem for passengers trying to make a timely evacuation, according to the Telegraph.

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Buckle Up for Turbulence

Turbulence is the main reason passengers should stay buckled up in flight. Turbulence — that rocking, shaking feeling caused by a shift in airflow— is very common on flights. Chances are, you experienced turbulence of some degree on your last flight, and you’ll likely feel it again on your next. This is why a seat belt is definitely necessary.

“The reason you must wear a seat belt, flight crew included,” Poole told the Telegraph, “is because you don't want the plane coming down on you.” She explained that while we, as passengers, may feel like we’re lifted up during turbulence, the sensation is actually produced from the airplane dropping.

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“It comes down hard and it comes down fast, and that's how passengers get injured - by getting hit on the head by an airplane,” Poole told the Telegraph.

A bout of bad turbulence can lead to injuries, especially if you hit your head on the bulkhead or slam your arm against an armrest. In more extreme circumstances, turbulence has been known to “throw” people, full force into the ceiling of the plane, which can cause concussions, broken bones, or possibly even more serious injuries.

How Pilots Know When to Turn on the Seat Belt Sign

Of course, there are ways to predict when a plane might encounter turbulence, but it’s not always fool-proof. Pilots can use meteorology maps to avoid thunderstorms, dangerous winds, or even turbulence, according to ATTN.

However, you can’t always know what’s going to happen on a flight. While pilots do their best to turn on the seat belt sign when they see a pocket of turbulence coming, there’s always a chance that it can still come without warning.

Whenever the seat belt sign is on, you should stay seated, buckle up, and not call for the flight attendant (they need to think about their safety, too). However, if you’re staying in your seat and the seat belt sign is off, you should still keep it buckled.

Poole told the Telegraph, “You never know when it's going to happen, and it happens, even when the sign is off. That is what is called clear air turbulence. Turbulence is no joke. People get hurt.”

It's always better to be safe and prepared, so think twice before unbuckling just for the fun of it on your next flight. 

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