The megahit movie “Titanic” reinforced the commonly held notion that women and children have historically been given priority when passengers and crew must abandon a sinking ship.
But a new study of shipwrecks by two researchers reveals that “women and children first” is a myth.
The study examined 18 shipping disasters dating back to the 1850s and found that the survival rate was 61 percent for crew members, 37 percent for male passengers, 27 percent for women, and 15 percent for children.
The notion that “the captain must go down with the ship” is also a myth, the study disclosed: The survival rate for captains was 44 percent, higher than for male or female passengers and children.
The true rallying cry on sinking ships seemed instead to be “every man for himself,” wrote study authors Mikael Elinder of Sweden’s Uppsala University and Oscar Erixson of the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was based on the premise that crew members and male passengers stood a better chance of surviving a free-for-all evacuation due to their greater strength and familiarity with the vessel, and if men chose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of women and children, their survival rates should reflect that.
They did not, the researchers found.
It is true, however, that the survival rate of women on the Titanic was more than three times higher than the men’s survival rate, a result of actions by the British ship’s officers — 74 percent of women and 52 percent of children survived, compared to 20 percent of men, while 1,502 of 2,224 passengers and crew perished.
But the Swedish study found that in general, women suffered worse survival rates aboard British ships than on those flagged by other countries.
Maritime law does not require captains to go down with their ship, or crew members to sacrifice themselves for the sake of women and children passengers, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“‘Women and children first’ is part of the common vernacular,” William Dysart, a maritime lawyer and board chairman of the San Diego Maritime Museum, told the Times.
“But I have to chuckle when I hear people talk about it. To my knowledge it’s never been codified.”