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Women and children last

With two notable exceptions, chivalry is a notion that has long been buried at sea

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It's a question often asked: Is chivalry dead?

According to a recent study by two Swedish economists, that brand of gallantry is not only dead, it was buried at sea long ago.


Keen to test humanity's capacity for selflessness in times of scarcity and duress, the students of the "dismal science" reviewed survival data for some of history's worst shipwrecks.

What they found was that women and children were only half as likely as crew members and captains to survive maritime disasters.

Instead of "women and children first" and "the captain must go down with the ship," the rallying cry seemed to be "every man for himself," the authors wrote.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on the premise that crew members and male passengers stood the greatest chance of survival in a free-for-all ship evacuation, owing to greater strength and knowledge of the vessel. If men chose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of women and children, however, their survival rates should suffer accordingly.

They did not.

In examining 18 shipping disasters dating to the 1850s, the economists found little evidence that men were inclined to surrender their survival advantage. Overall, the survival rate was 61 per cent for crew members, 44 per cent for captains, 37 per cent for male passengers, 27 per cent for women and 15 per cent for children.

But there were exceptions.

The Titanic stood out, in that an unusual percentage of women escaped death -- a result of the ship's officers making their safety a priority.

"On the Titanic, the survival rate of women was more than three times higher than the survival rate of men," wrote study authors Mikael Elinder of Sweden's Uppsala University and Oscar Erixson of the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm.

The other aberration was the British troopship Birkenhead, which sank off the coast of South Africa in 1852 and gave rise to the concept of "women and children first."

The vessel was carrying hundreds of British military personnel and their families when it struck a rock and began to sink in shark-infested waters. The ship lacked sufficient lifeboats, so commanders ordered that they be filled with women and children. The men were ordered to stand on deck and not attempt to swim for the lifeboats as the ship sank.

Like the Titanic, the disaster became the subject of numerous songs, stories and paintings. And the so-called Birkenhead Drill became a symbol of English stoicism and valour in face of almost certain death.

Setting up an experiment to simulate decision-making under life-and-death situations would be impractical and unethical, Erixson said, so he and Elinder chose to study shipwrecks because they feature closed environments where all passengers face similar motivation. Maritime disasters also are documented extensively, so the researchers could factor in age, sex, travel class and other factors.

For the most part, the Swedish study found that women faced worse survival rates aboard British vessels than those flagged by other nations. Female passengers aboard doomed English ships saw their survival rates drop almost 10 per cent, the authors said.

The study included two 21st century disasters, but not the January incident in which the cruise ship Costa Concordia struck a reef off the Italian coast. Thirty-two people were killed; the ship's captain was charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship.

While the public may have been shocked to read of episodes such as the Costa Concordia, maritime law does not require that captains go down with their ships, or that crew members sacrifice themselves.

"'Women and children first' is part of the common vernacular," said William Dysart, a maritime law attorney and board chairman of the San Diego Maritime Museum. "But I have to chuckle when I hear people talk about it. To my knowledge, it's never been codified."


-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J3

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