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Press release

  • 27 June 2005
  • Evacuation procedures based on crowd panic could be flawed

    Going underground. Virtual travellers discover how they would cope in an emergency evacuation on the

    Going underground. Virtual tube travellers discover how they would cope in an emergency.

    Evacuation procedures based on crowd panic may be flawed, according to research on display at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition next week (July 4-7)


    A team, led by Dr John Drury of the University of Sussex, has developed the Underground Station Evacuation Application to observe how people behave in a simulated emergency situation. The initial results challenge longstanding assumptions about how crowds behave.


    Social psychologist Dr Drury said: "Crowd panic is frequently blamed for deaths, but studies of escaping crowds reveal a different picture. As well as emotional and selfish behaviour there is also helping, co-ordination and self-sacrifice, even in life-threatening situations. We have developed a simulation which works just like a 3D computer game to help understand how crowds behave in emergencies. We hope that the results will aid the handling of evacuations and the designing of emergency exit routes."


    "There is an outdated notion that emergency evacuation behaviour is characterised by blind panic. This is reflected in the way information is withheld from the public during an emergency situation. The position of emergency exits may not reflect the fact that individuals will try to take their usual route of exit rather than blindly running to the first exit they see."


    Dr Drury continued: "One very interesting finding so far was that people behaved differently depending on who they were told the people around them were. Those told that they were part of a crowd that had just come from the same football match or that saw themselves as part of a group tended to help other members of the crowd when the opportunity arose to a greater degree than those told that the people around them were simply other individuals."


     Dr Drury added: "It seems that greater co-ordination, more mutual helping and a calmer response will result when people feel part of a group. Perhaps underground authorities need to try to develop a greater community feeling on the trains and at the stations in order to try to take advantage of this difference in behaviour."


    "While simulations cannot entirely recreate the real thing, steps are taken to ensure that when someone goes through the simulation they respond as realistically as possible. Participants are asked to imagine themselves in the scenario and are talked through the process of going into the station and encountering the fire. We can also show them video footage of real fires beforehand to enhance their imagination. In our latest study, when participants were asked to say how they felt afterwards, their answers showed them to have been significantly engaged with the experience."


    The Underground Station Evacuation Application is a fully interactive computer visualisation that can be used without special training. As the participant navigates around the 3D environment opportunities arise for helping or pushing past others in the crowd. Key factors such as the number of people and levels of smoke can be varied while factors such as speed of exit can be recorded.



    Notes for editors 

    1.       The exhibit 'Don't panic!' is part of the Royal Society's annual Summer Science Exhibition. The exhibition features a total of 24 exhibits, is free-of-charge and opens to all during the following times:


              Mon 4 July 6.00pm to 9.00pm - note evening opening time
    Tues 5 July 10.00am to 4.30pm
    Wed 6 July 10.00am to 4.30pm
    Thurs 7 July 10.00am to 4.30pm


    2.       The Summer Science Exhibition takes place at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG.



    For further information, including arranging to see a demonstration of the simulator or requesting images, contact:

    Tim Watson

    Press and Public Relations

    The Royal Society, London

    Tel: 020 7451 2508/2510


    University of Sussex press contacts, Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune, Tel: 01273 678888, email:



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