It's not an urban myth - some bloke told me

I bang on a lot about how newspaper reports often resemble urban myths, and sometimes even seem to create urban myths of their own. It's not often you get to see existing urban myths perpetuated by a gullible press, but it happens.

So, it's a turn up for the books to see the old favourite about peeing on the electrified rail turning up all over the press. Here it is on Channel 4 - 'Man died 'urinating on live rail''

The idea that peeing on an electrified railway line can kill you was pretty much debunked as a myth by Mythbusters. Apparently, wee doesn't come out in a constant stream, and breaks into droplets before it gets far enough to hit the rail. You'd have to virtually be laying on top of the thing before you got close enough.

"But it got onto Channel 4 News - the police confirmed it - it must be true. This must be the exception." That's what you might think. But check the actual wording of the ITN report on Channel 4 News:
British Transport Police confirmed the 41-year-old was electrocuted at Vauxhall station in south London last week.

He walked on to the track from Platform 1, a BTP spokesman said.

According to reports, the Polish tourist went to find somewhere discreet to go to the toilet but his urine splashed on to the live rail.

See the shift? British Transport Police confirmed a man was electrocuted after he'd walked onto the track. That's all. Mysterious 'reports' insert the bit about dying when his wee splashed the live rail. I sometimes think that in stories where sources aren't being protected, anonymous sources should alway be referred to as 'some bloke' just so readers are aware of how much stock to put in them.

The Sun's version 'Killed peeing on live train track' says this:
It is thought his urine splashed on the line and he died instantly when a 750-volt charge leaped up at him.

Ah - that clarifies things. 'It is thought'. By who exactly? Maybe 'It is thought' should be qualified with 'by hacks who think it would make a better story...'

This one's been reported all over the place, but connected with what I talked about yesterday, the Mail's version is headlined, 'Polish tourist killed by urinating on 750-volt electric railway line'. See - the nationality of the person involved is now important enough to put in the headline.

The Mail has a 'Polish people are stupid comedy bunglers and it's dangerous because they might not understand Britain' narrative going on. This is probably best illustrated by a couple of stories likening Polish people to Borat from late 2006, or 'Manchester buses ordered off the road over Polish safety fears', which actually revealed later in the story that in fact the bus company involved was found to have faults in over half their buses. You might have thought that would be more relevant to their buses being ordered off the road, but there you go. The paper also blamed the Polish for the police not being able to find the Suffolk Strangler straight away (after having to remove stories that spuriously reported that the strangler was Polish - but that's a different, nastier story).

So it shouldn't be a surprise that the paper thinks it's relevant to put in the headline that it's a Polish person involved in the comedy-penis injury story that regrettably ended in death because he just didn't understand that the UK is different.

But he was killed weeing on the electrified line. Must be true. Some bloke said.


Tom said...

They've got the voltage wrong, too - it's 660V round there.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

No, it's 750V. Some bloke said, so it must be true.

Akela said...

I've had a bit of a ramble about this as well but I'm less concerned about the what the papers say as some of the comments, particularly on the Mail's site. Some of it is quite chilling.

ejh said...

Matt Turner also mentioned comments, but as far as I can see there aren't any. Or aren't any any more.

Dr Nick said...

Regarding the voltage of the rails, Wikipedia has this to say

"The Underground ... uses a four-rail system ... a top-contact third rail is beside the track, energised at +420 V DC, and a ... fourth rail is centrally between the running rails, at -210 V DC, which combine to provide a traction voltage of 630 V DC."

You know the story is likely to be an urban myth if the writer of the article can't get the basic details right.

Dr Nick said...

Oh, and another thing. A further 10 minutes' worth of searching reveals this Wikipedia page


It appears that Warsaw Metro operates with the Third Rail system to provide electrical power to the trains, so it is unlikely that the person electrocuted wasn't familiar with the system. This makes the so-called source saying "Perhaps because he was from Poland he had no idea the rail was electrified" even more unreliable than it already is. I bet that this source is some bloke in a pub and not a witness to the event.

Rob said...

Dr Nick: Presumably the station in question was Vauxhall mainline, though, not Vauxhall Underground. Third-rail electrified lines southbound from London run in a range from 650V up to 850V, so 750V is a reasonable fist at a figure for it.

(That said, the articles are still woefully written and utterly shameless in their conflating of police statements with "some bloke said" speculation - but at least their figure for how many volts almost certainly didn't electrocute someone through his penis isn't that bad.)