In The Unlikely Event

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Do you remember… airplane travel? Packing into a tin can with 200 other people all breathing each other’s air? Well, these days, most of us are still avoiding planes but, in the before times, when we boarded a flight, we all received the same familiar set of instructions.

[FLIGHT ATTENDANT: FOR EVERYONE’S SAFETY, NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO REVIEW THE SAFETY INFORMATION CARD, WHICH IS IN YOUR SEAT POCKET.]

Roman Mars:
If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you’ve been directed to study the plane safety briefing card. Every passenger plane, commercial or private, has to have safety cards on board. And, if you’re like most people, you probably never bothered to examine it too closely. That is if you’ve even looked at it at all.

Mo LaBorde:
I always look at these things. As soon as I sit down on a plane, I pull out the safety card.

Roman Mars:
Today, I’m going to be talking with producer Mo LaBorde, about why safety cards might be worth a closer look.

Mo LaBorde:
Hi Roman.

Roman Mars:
Hi Mo. So, you’re saying you always pull out the safety card?

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. I mean, what can I say? I just love airplane safety cards. Honestly, I think I love them a little bit too much. I don’t just look at them, I collect them. I’ve been collecting for about 10 years.

Roman Mars:
10 years. So, when you say you collect them, what do you mean?

Mo LaBorde:
Well, whenever I fly on a plane, I just snagged the card and I put it in my backpack.

Roman Mars:
So you just take them. Is that allowed? Is that a problem?

Mo LaBorde:
It’s a good question because it’s technically not allowed, but I just have such a strong kleptomania for this one object. Today in my collection, I have about 300.

Roman Mars:
That’s cool. So, why do you have 300 safety cards?

Mo LaBorde:
I think it’s that, for me, I fell in love with them because they’re safety themed comic strips. The outfits of the women are stuck in the 1960s, there are little girls wearing Mary Jane shoes and Bobbysocks, and the way they look is so fascinating to me. But, more than that, I am especially fascinated with the way that they depict a plane crash. It’s this alternate version of events where there’s no blood, there’s no wreckage from the crash, nobody’s distressed, and their hair doesn’t even get messed up. It’s so obviously the opposite of what an actual plane crash would look like.

Roman Mars:
Absolutely. When I see these cards, I always think of the movie “Fight Club” where Brad Pitt’s character outright mocks the way that people look on these cards.

[TYLER DURDEN: EMERGENCY WATER LANDING, 600 MILES AN HOUR, BLANK FACES, CALM AS HINDU COWS. THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY.]

Roman Mars:
And then, later on, you see Ed Norton and Brad Pitt replace the normal safety cards with cards where everyone is, like, freaked out and panicking.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And I think that the “Fight Club” scene gets at something about how most of us think the cards aren’t actually necessary. At some gut level, we just assume that if we’re in a crash, everyone’s going to die. But then, after I began collecting them, I started looking into the history of these cards and where they come from. And, basically, what I learned is that we have that all wrong. Safety cards work.

Roman Mars:
Really? I would not have thought that.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah, reading a safety card can save your life. But also it turns out that safety cards have played a central role in our evolving understanding of how to survive a plane crash.

Roman Mars:
All right. Well, tell me more. What is it that we owe to the safety card?

Mo LaBorde:
Well, to answer that first, we have to go back a ways to a time when safety cards were pretty much useless. In fact, they weren’t even really about safety because in the early days of passenger airplane travel, in the 1930s, there was no regulation at all about what should go on the cards. And in the beginning, airlines had to convince people to get on planes because people were scared to fly. So, the early cards were all about soothing passengers, selling them on the idea that air travel was safe and glamorous. And they were, essentially, just miniature versions of those travel postcards, like little advertisements for the airlines. So, here, let me show you a really early card. This one was made by Imperial Airways in the 1930s.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay. This one says Imperial Airways, comfort, and convenience, and there’s little cherubs carrying a fat fancy man in a hammock. That’s lovely. That is not the depiction of air travel in any way, shape, or form.

Mo LaBorde:
No, it’s a fantasy. And if you open it up, all of the instructions pretty much, it’s all text.

Roman Mars:
Okay so, here’s some of this. To inflate the belt, hold the air bottle, which you can feel inside the belt in the left hand, and press lever B upwards with the right hand. That is not very clear. Do you know what that means?

Mo LaBorde:
No, I really don’t. And sadly, this card is characteristic of the whole first wave of safety card design throughout the thirties and forties. And, to be fair, by the mid-60s, things had improved a bit. You start to see these things called fleet cards, which were almost like spiral-bound booklets that contained the safety instructions for multiple plane models in multiple languages. But that often just made it harder to find the correct safety information because there were so many pages to flip through.

Roman Mars:
So, how did we get from that to the kinds of cards that we’re familiar with today?

Mo LaBorde:
Well, things really started to change in the late 1960s when airlines started noticing a troubling pattern when it came to crashes.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
Impact survival was possible, but not escape.

Mo LaBorde:
Dan Johnson is a psychologist who specializes in airplane safety. And he says that in the 50s and 60s, air travel was growing increasingly safe. Planes crashed less often. And when they did crash, thanks to design improvements, those crashes were less fatal. All of which should have added up to more survivors.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
But, unfortunately, those survivors were not always getting out of the airplane in time to survive.

Mo LaBorde:
And I have to say, this is the part of the story that made me throw out everything I had assumed about airplane safety because it turns out that if you’re in a serious crash, it’s not the impact that kills you.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
There’s very few accidents that kill everyone aboard.

Mo LaBorde:
Instead, what kills you is what happens next. It’s the smoke and fire inside the cabin after the crash. So, the key to surviving is getting out of the plane as fast as possible.

Roman Mars:
I guess I never thought about it that way before, that the important thing is just exiting the plane.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And this is the realization accident investigators had in the 1960s. They calculated that in your average crash, people had about 90 seconds to get out of the plane before it became “un-survivable.” But again, and again, they found that passengers weren’t making it out in time.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
In one accident, for example, there were 101 passengers aboard, 4 survivors. And the people who were killed were not killed as a result of the impact, but because they couldn’t get out through the door.

Roman Mars:
That’s so dreadful.

Mo LaBorde:
It’s nightmare fuel. And it was a nightmare for the airline industry too, which is why in 1968, Douglas Aircraft decided to improve their safety record by hiring Dan along with another guy named Beau Altman.

Dr. Beau Altman:
I had never been on an airplane in my life.

Mo LaBorde:
That’s Beau. Like Dan, he’s also a psychologist who specializes in airplane safety. But back when he was first hired at Douglas, he says he didn’t know the first thing about air travel.

Dr. Beau Altman:
I’d never been on one of those great big monster airplanes.

Mo LaBorde:
So, the first time he entered a proper passenger plane was to give it a safety inspection.

Dr. Beau Altman:
And my first inclination when I entered the back door of the airplane, was where are the exits? And I could not see any exit. I could only see the door which I came through. And I said, “Well, how does the passenger know where to go in the event of an emergency?”

Mo LaBorde:
So, he started walking through the airplane and he noticed all the doors were covered with curtains. And why were they covered?

Mo LaBorde:
“Was it just for aesthetics?”

Dr. Beau Altman:
“Oh yeah. They didn’t want anybody to know that there was a possibility of an emergency exit there. They didn’t want to talk about safety at all.”

Mo LaBorde:
And then, he took a look at their safety cards.

Dr. Beau Altman:
So, I looked at it and I said, “This is terrible.” I said, “It’s all in three languages and no pictures or nothing.” It was just read it and weep. And I said, “We’ve got a problem here. We need to teach how to get out of that airplane in a hurry.”

Mo LaBorde:
So, Beau and Dan decided to found a company together to improve airline safety procedures. They called it the Interaction Research Corporation, and their specialty was running tests in mock cabins full of research participants.

Dr. Beau Altman:
So, Dan and I did tons of work on how do we get 450 people aboard that airplane off – everybody off, including the crew – in 90 seconds?

Mo LaBorde:
And they would start by making each test as realistic as possible. They always made sure that there were X amount of people under the age of six and so many people over the age of 70.

Dr. Beau Altman:
And they have only been given their passenger briefing that it would be on a regular airplane.

Mo LaBorde:
And then, they would just toss a smoke bomb into the fake plane cabin.

Dr. Beau Altman:
Then, boom, lights, go off. “Emergency! Emergency! Evacuate! Evacuate! Release your seatbelt! Release your seatbelt! Get up! Get up! Get up! Move! Move! Move! Get to the exit.”

Mo LaBorde:
And then, when they got to the exit …

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
They would be 15 feet above the ground. And they had to jump into an inflatable slide in the dark. And they’d never done it before.

Mo LaBorde:
In trying to get everyone moving as fast as possible, these experiments could actually get dangerous.

Roman Mars:
I have no doubt.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah, they got a little out of hand.

Dr. Beau Altman:
We tried to provide as much realism as we could without hurting people. We still hurt a lot of people.

Mo LaBorde:
“Really?”

Dr. Beau Altman:
“Yeah. A lot of people got hurt jumping out of the slides, but nevertheless, we did it.”

Roman Mars:
It’s for the greater good.

Mo LaBorde:
Yes. And their tests were an information goldmine. All the participants would be wearing numbered vests indicating their seat number, their age, their gender. And Beau and Dan would be filming the whole thing to see who went where and who did what.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
I figured that I had looked at about 10,000 people over 10 years, looking at whether they sat down at the doorsill, how long they waited, did they follow the behavior of the passenger in front?

Mo LaBorde:
So, for example, with that thing Dan just mentioned, whenever people sat down at the door before going down the slide, they found that it took an extra half-second per person.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
And if you’ve got maybe 100 passengers going out a door, then that’s 40 or 50 seconds.

Mo LaBorde:
But if you need to get everyone out in 90 seconds, then 50 seconds is more than you can afford.

Roman Mars:
So, I thought that jumping on the slide was a structural thing. But that’s actually just a time thing?

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. I thought that too, that sitting down would damage the slide.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Mo LaBorde:
No, it’s all about getting the passengers out as quickly as possible.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that is fascinating.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. But one of the most important things Beau and Dan learned was that one of the best ways to get out of the airplane on time was, surprise, to read the safety card.

Roman Mars:
Wow. They’re important.

Mo LaBorde:
They really are important. When they had people read the safety cards, and when those cards had the relevant information, the evacuation times improved dramatically. So, they began applying what they learned in the experiments to the design of the cards.

Dr. Beau Altman:
And we said, “Okay, how can we improve these?” And then, we said, “No words, just pictures.”

Mo LaBorde:
And then Beau and Dan would test the cards out on the public and see if people could understand the illustration.

Dr. Beau Altman:
We would say, “Have you got a second here, mister? We’ve got something here we’d like for you to take a look at, and tell us what you think.” And we have to have 90% understandability, or we’re not going to sell this card.

Mo LaBorde:
And the result was cards that look a lot like the cards you see today, they used pictures to tell the entire story of how to exit the plane. And they zoomed in on specific, important actions, like how to open a door. And there were also things that you might not consciously notice but which apparently really help, like using red for all the exit related arrows, and pretty much having no text on the card except for the word “Exit.”

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I’ve never really thought about that, but exit is the only word.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. They just contained all these visual strategies that nudge the reader towards comprehension. And, as a final little design flourish, instead of getting swallowed up by the seatback pocket, their cards actually fit so that the title would just peek out and sort of entice the passenger to open it up.

Dr. Beau Altman:
And when they looked down, all I could see was “Just In Case.” Intriguing. Just in case. Just in case what?

Announcer:
“This is the ABC evening news with Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters.”

Harry Reasoner:
“Good evening. Yesterday the averages caught up with the 747. Two of them, both on charter flights, both on the ground collided at Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands.”

Mo LaBorde:
The Tenerife crash, in March of 1977 is the moment where Beau and Dan’s cards really were put to the test, because it involved two large planes, it’s still the single deadliest aviation accident in history. Why it happened, is up for debate, but basically, a 747 belonging to KLM, an airline carrier, collided on takeoff with a Pan Am 747 that was still on the runway. And the KLM plane tore the roof off of the Pan Am plane.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And on the KLM plane, everyone died and that easily could have been the case with the Pan Am plane too.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
It got very hot inside the Pan Am plane because of the fuel leaking down from the KLM plane into the cabin.

Mo LaBorde:
So, at a certain point, the conditions in the cabin became un-survivable.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
But 67 people did survive.

Mo LaBorde:
And it turned out that Dan and Beau designed the safety for the Pan Am 747, meaning their card was the one on board the plane with the survivors.

Dr. Beau Altman:
And one of them that I talked to said that if it wasn’t for the safety card, he and his wife would not have gotten out of the plane.

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s amazing.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. Apparently this one couple, Paul and Floy Heck, somewhat famously escaped the crash while clutching a safety card in their hands. And I actually have a copy of that safety card.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So, let me check this out. So it says “747. Just in case …” and you open it up and it’s really like the modern card. It has open up the door, jumping onto the slide, the layout of the plane, and it is a quantum leap forward over those lists you showed me earlier, that were all texts. Anyway, beautiful pictures, but really just impenetrable. Yeah. It seems like one that would save lives.

Mo LaBorde:
Exactly. And they really saw the fact that there were survivors in Tenerife as kind of a vindication of their work. And after Tenerife, Beau and Dan actually testified before Congress about the need for better airline safety procedures. And it’s around that time that the all-visual safety cards became the standard throughout the industry.

Roman Mars:
So, did they learn anything else from the tragedy in Tenerife? Were there things that they discovered that they could have done better even?

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. That’s a great question. Given that some of the survivors said the safety cards definitely helped them, why weren’t there even more survivors? And they found that there are really two big hurdles preventing people from absorbing the information in the safety cards. The first is that when the crash happened, a lot of people just froze.

Dr. Beau Altman:
Some of the survivors gave us some information on, they were going down the aisle way to get to an exit, and there were people sitting there with her mouth open, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to move, they didn’t do anything. They just sat there and died.

Mo LaBorde:
Investigators at Tenerife found that some of the victims were still buckled in their seats.

Roman Mars:
Like they were so shocked, they couldn’t even unbuckle their seat belts.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. It is pretty creepy, but it’s also apparently common in plane crashes. It’s called tonic immobility, and psychologists think that this is a primitive defense mechanism, because one way to get a predator to leave you alone is just to play dead. And it turns out that this explains the thing that from the beginning, I have found the most perplexing about the safety cards.

Mo LaBorde:
“Why, in the world of the safety card, is everything so orderly and sort of panic-less?”

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
“I think that there’s a fear of being in an airplane accident and anything that we do that might increase that fear would probably increase the incidence of tonic immobility.”

Mo LaBorde:
The placid faces, the perfectly quaffed hair. The very thing that “Fight Club” is making fun of, it turns out that that is not a shallow corporate marketing decision. Dan says the bloodless design is at least partially about keeping passengers from panicking even more and maybe even freezing up.

Roman Mars:
So, you mentioned that there were two big hurdles. One is that the people freeze up before using the information on the card so, what’s the second big hurdle when it comes to safety cards?

Mo LaBorde:
The second hurdle is something that we talked about at the very beginning of the story, which is that nobody reads them. Nobody reads the card.

Roman Mars:
Besides you.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. It turns out that the little just-in-case teaser doesn’t really work that well.

Dr. Daniel Johnson:
You’re going to get a lot of people that say “I am not going to do that. I don’t want to read this. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to do anything at all about it, period. I wanted to get to Dallas and I don’t give a (bleep) about anything else.” I mean, that’s their attitude.

Mo LaBorde:
Dan told me that even today, only 3 or 4% of passengers ever pick up the safety card.

Roman Mars:
Is this why they now do safety videos? Not relying solely on the cards?

Mo LaBorde:
Well, the videos help up to a point, but even the briefing videos have their limits. They work really well with first-time flyers, but they still fall flat just like the cards when it comes to frequent flyers.

Roman Mars:
So, you got the cards and you got the videos, and also things like the flight demonstrations. But I wonder if there’s any other way to reach the most resistant passengers. Have they tried other things to inject the necessary information into people’s brains?

Mo LaBorde:
So, there are some other methods that airline companies have tried to get passengers’ attention and they haven’t gone that well. Beau told me about this one carrier, Eastern Airlines, that tried an experiment.

Dr. Beau Altman:
They said everybody had to come into the facility 15 minutes early, and then they had to go to this room and they got the passenger safety briefing in the room. Then they went out of business.

Mo LaBorde:
Beau says the cards, the demonstrations, the videos, they all help get more information across to more people. But in the end, the information will always hit this wall of resistance among passengers.

Dr. Beau Altman:
We try to teach them, we try to encourage them, we do all those things, but people’s attitudes stick and you can’t change that. You cannot change that. So, you have to look at it and say, “How many people can I trust to do what they’re told to do?” Probably 30%, but what do you do? You have to play the odds. That’s all there is to it.

Roman Mars:
So, when it comes down to it, if I really want to survive a crash or some kind of problem on an airplane, the funnels that really rest with me, I have to watch the video, I have to read the card, but this is my responsibility to take that final step.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And, oh my God, I’m just cringing. I feel like, at the risk of turning this whole story into a PSA, it really is the truth that we all have to actively participate in taking our own safety seriously. And I still love the cards. I just see them a little bit differently now. Before doing all this reporting, to me, they were just physical laminated artifacts of people pretending to have control in a crisis.

Roman Mars:
They were endearing because they were so futile because they didn’t matter.

Mo LaBorde:
Yes. That’s the main reason that I took them from flights. But now, and I know I’m going to sound like a goody-two-shoes saying this, but the next time I board a plane, I’m going to pull out the safety information card and I’m going to read it. Note where the exits are, how to open the door, and then when I’m finished, I’m going to put it back in the seatback pocket and hope that the next person reads it too.

Roman Mars:
When we come back, we’ll talk to some of the people who actually draw safety cards for a living and find out why you really want them to do a good job after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So we’re back with safety card criminal, Mo LaBorde. (Laughter) So Mo, I know that there was some stuff that we couldn’t fit in the piece. And you talked to other people besides Beau and Dan.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. When I was researching this story, one of the things I learned is that Beau and Dan had all these great innovations, but neither of them were artists, like they don’t draw the cards. So I got really curious about who it is that does the drawing, like what actually goes into creating one of these things? So I called up Brock Fischer and Larry Bruns.

Mo LaBorde:
“When you tell people, this is what you do, what do most people say?”

Brock Fischer:
“One I get a lot is, ‘That’s a real job?’ or ‘That pays the bills?’ I get that one quite a bit.”

Larry Bruns:
“Most people don’t say anything.”

Mo LaBorde:
So the first guy you heard is Brock, and the second guy’s Larry. Together, they comprise Air Safety Art International. And adorably, they are a grandfather-grandson safety card design duo.

Roman Mars:
Nice! Lovely.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And apparently, major airline companies have their own in-house design teams, but smaller airlines turn to companies like Brock and Larry’s to make their safety cards. And they also do a lot of private jets and helicopters, which means that they have a lot of fancy clients, some of which they could tell me on the record and some of which they couldn’t.

Larry Bruns:
“Okay. Yeah. I can tell you, I did Taylor Swift’s Falcon jet.”

Mo LaBorde:
“Really?”

Larry Bruns:
“Yeah. I don’t know if it’s the same one she has now, but I did one of Taylor Swift’s briefing cards.”

Mo LaBorde:
Yes. I confess I was star-struck. I was very impressed, but even more impressive is that Larry is the guy who did all the drawings for Beau and Dan’s first visual cards back in the ’60s. Turns out he’s Beau’s brother-in-law.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so this is like a “family” family business?

Mo LaBorde:
Totally. Yes. Which means that Larry helped develop the classic safety card look. The retro clothes and the crisp clean lines, and of course, no words.

Larry Bruns:
“Words in a briefing card, just kill me, and unfortunately, they’re out there.”

Mo LaBorde:
And for the past few years, he’s been teaching his grandson, Brock, all the secrets of safety card illustration.

Roman Mars:
Oh. So, okay, we have to hear some secrets of safety card illustrations. What are they? I mean, what goes into designing a safety card, that maybe I am not noticing?

Mo LaBorde:
Well, the big goal is, that grasping the information presented in the card should feel effortless.

Brock Fischer:
So it’s trying to make sure that it’s a little story and that the whole story makes sense without someone going, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.”

Mo LaBorde:
And that little story, is the story of how you get off the plane, and it starts with making sure you understand where you are in the cabin.

Brock Fischer:
“That’s one that gets me when I’m on an airliner, is if I’m looking at the card and I look up, do I see the same thing?”

Mo LaBorde:
And then they need to make sure that each scene in the narrative has only a few key details that stand out.

Brock Fischer:
“Things like, if in that aircraft, that handle is bright red, we need to show it bright red, not a generic gray or black. It needs to be red, because if that’s the only thing you remember, at least you know what you’re looking for?”

Roman Mars:
So the promise is, if I’m panicking, I just have this glowing red handle in my mind’s eye from the card, and I’m just thinking “red handle, red handle” and then when I see it, I’m like success. Then the next step.

Mo LaBorde:
Exactly. Yes. But even conveying that is a lot of work, because all the details you see in the card have to exactly match what’s actually in the aircraft so that the passengers don’t get confused. So Larry and Brock told me that they need images or samples of all of the objects in each carrier’s version of each different plane.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Mo LaBorde:
Like you would be shocked at how many different types of door handles there are, or safety vests. There are so many types of inflatable safety vests. Larry and Brock say they’ve drawn about 150 types of life vests and rafts.

Roman Mars:
I had never really thought of that, but that’s totally true, yeah, it has to be exactly right, or it doesn’t really do its job.

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And the same thing goes for all the different actions that the passengers are expected to perform because they need to accurately convey what each of those actions look like, but also feel like.

Brock Fischer:
“When we draw people, we have them carry weight. Like we add muscle shape inside the lines, we kind of like show them bending and the crinkles in the shirt, so it looks like he’s heaving this raft. So we create the illusion of mass and weight really quickly.”

Mo LaBorde:
And that means that they’ve also ended up with a vast library of customized character poses.

Brock Fischer:
“So, in the end, we probably have, I don’t know, we’ve never done the math. There’s got to be a thousand different characters and 985 of them are me. So…”

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. This is the final safety card secret. Many of the characters you see in their cards, regardless of what they look like on the page, really they’re just Brock. They’re just based on photos of him in a nice pair of slacks and a dress shirt.

Larry Bruns:
“People actually wise up to that. They’ll start to look and be like, ‘It’s just the same guy in every situation on this card.'”

Roman Mars:
That’s so good.

Mo LaBorde:
This is my favorite fun fact, because when Brock’s body type won’t do, they just recruit anybody, like their cousin, their spouse, their friend, to come put on business casual or like a flight attendant outfit and pose for the cards.

Larry Bruns:
“We, for some reason, recruit waitresses from restaurants that we used to go to when we were in Bellingham. We ask them if they want to make an extra hundred bucks and they usually say yes.”

Roman Mars:
Really? Just come over to my house and pretend to be a crash card model?

Mo LaBorde:
Yeah. And they actually asked me if I wanted to be a safety card model?

Roman Mars:
Oh my God, did you say yes?

Mo LaBorde:
Yes, I was like-

Roman Mars:
Of course, yeah.

Mo LaBorde:
It is super niche and super cool. They haven’t had an order come in where they need basically a woman to do a very specific action yet, but when they do, I’ll be there.

Roman Mars:
Mo, this has been so much fun. Thanks so much.

Mo LaBorde:
Thank you, Roman.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Mo LaBorde. Edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mixed by Bryson Barnes. Music by Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the senior producer, Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Vivian Le, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks today to Johan Pihl, who we spoke to for this story about the history of safety card design, but whose voice we didn’t get to include. Some of the images Mo and I looked at are actually from an incredible book he put together with co-author, Eric Ericson, it’s called “Design for Impact,” and it contains images of safety cards from different periods all over the world. It’s an absolutely gorgeous book, and it’s just so much fun to flip through. If you want to check it out, we’ll have a link on our website, 99pi.org.

Roman Mars:
We are a project of KALW 91.7 in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which lives at the far corners of North America but is centered in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California. We’re a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcast in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can now order our first book, “The 99% Invisible City” at 99pi.org/book. We have links to purchase that anywhere you get your books, including signed additions and the audiobook. And if you did get a book and enjoyed it, review it somewhere. It’s a huge help to us when you review it in lots of different places. For all your other 99pi needs look no further than 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Mo LaBorde spoke with Larry Bruns, Brock Fischer, Dr. Beau Altman, and Dr. Daniel Johnson.

This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg.

  1. Rich Newman

    I love the live safety briefings by flight attendants.

    Whether I was traveling regularly for business or on leisure flight, my attention is undivided and serious. Besides not wanting to be rude to the staff doing their jobs, watching puts me in a zen state. Not so much for the videos though.

    And based on this episode, I eagerly await my next trip so I can start savoring the laminated safety cards.

    1. Thisfox

      I’ve been hoping that, with the ongoing events, less aircraft might be a continuing thing.

  2. Rebecca Pautsch

    I guess I’m one of the small percentage of people who always read the safety card! I just always have. I suppose I feel if the info is out there to keep me safe, it’s my responsibility to know/review it to safe my own life.

    Anyway, in the early 2000s sometime, I took a flight, and I wish I could remember which airline it was, but it had the best safety card ever! It literally featured a man in a purple tuxedo and top hat, and a full on ballerina in a tutu. Just wondering if Mo has that in her collection?

    Great episode, as always!

  3. According to Amazon, I bought my copy of Design For Impact on March 27, 2003. As much as I enjoy leafing through it, it’s one of my favorite spines to read. What better title for a design book can there be? What a striking pun!

  4. William Henderson

    Loved this episode, but I think you missed one of the craziest tactics for getting travelors to pay attention to the safety presentation — comedy. In the early days of Southwest, Spirit, and other budget airlines, real standup comics were hired as flight attendents, with the task of turning the safety spiel into a “laff riot.” Since comedy is by nature anarchic, it wasn’t long before this approach to the message was stretched too far, with jokes about clinging to spars in mid-ocean and so on. The comedy wasn’t the best, but it had a second-rate lounge lizard quality to it that could be appealing to the business travelor. Me, for example. I was one of those road warriors too cool to lift my gaze for the safety check. But when the jokes started coming, they had me at “hello.”

  5. Scott Hawkins

    I was in USCG aviation as aircrew in helicopters and small jets.
    We all went through dunker training where we learned that our amphibious HH3F helos are top heavy and even though they can float, if the rotor stops then it will flip over in anything but a calm sea.

    We also learned that most people did not make it out when this happened because they could not find their way out. So the dunker is a mockup of a helo fuselage with seats, doors and windows. They blindfold you, strap you in and then drop it in a pool and turn it upside down.

    You must take a breath while you can, wait for the plane to settle (upside down), release yourself, and make it out by yourself while keeping at least one hand ahold of something like a seat at all times (hand-over-hand).
    Divers stand by. So when I get on a commercial aircraft I usually grab the safety card and identify at least the closest exit to me and count the seats to it so that I could get there in the dark.

    I have been through a number of inflight incidents (fires, hoist cable through the rotor blades, etc.) and have gotten to experience passenger oxygen more than once. It feels like nothing and you just have to relax. This is something mentioned in briefings, but I doubt that people realize what it actuals feels like.

  6. Perry F. Bruns

    I know this is selfish, but I have to wonder if I’m somehow related to Larry Bruns. That said, I’m very glad he and his family got the ball rolling on safety cards.

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