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Summer Science Exhibition 2005

Don't panic!









The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


Computer simulation of an underground station used to assess crowd behaviour in emergencies.

Dr John Drury and Dr Chris Cocking, University of Sussex.
Dr Damian Schofield, Dr Andy Burton and Dr Paul Langston, University of Nottingham.
Dr Steve Reicher, University of St Andrews.

'When people gather in public spaces such as sports grounds or the Underground, their reaction to emergencies is crucial', explains John Drury, psychologist and head of the Underground Station Evacuation Application research team. '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'.

Results from studies using a new computer simulation are challenging the assumption that crowds panic in an emergency situation. The Underground Station Evacuation Application works just like a three-dimensional (3D) computer game. By manipulating a person's behaviour in a virtual crowd during an emergency on an underground railway station, factors such as the speed of exit can be recorded. Establishing how crowds behave in emergencies is vital to the handling of evacuations by the authorities and the design of emergency exit routes.

Recent research in social psychology suggests that shared identities can determine the behaviour of crowds. Where individuals in a crowd identify with others, at concerts or football matches for example, it is thought that greater co-ordination, more mutual helping and a calmer response will result. John and his colleagues have developed the Underground Station Evacuation Application to test this idea and hope their research will lead to changes in policy and practice that are based on accurate models of crowd behaviour.

'All procedures and building plans based on the possibility of crowd panic are probably flawed', suggests John. 'The outdated notion that emergency evacuation behaviour is characterised by blind panic is reflected in actions like the withholding of information from the public.

Don't panic! The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK