Last week, an American Airlines aircraft caught fire during takeoff at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The Boeing 767 was speeding down the runway, bound for Miami, when its right engine burst into flames. Amateur footage of the scene shows thick black smoke billowing from the burning wreckage. It also shows passengers running away, some with their carry-on bags in hand.

Scrambling to save laptops rather than lives may bewilder some. But it is hardly new. A similar scene played out in Las Vegas last year when a British Airways jet had to be evacuated. As it did in New York (Delta Airlines 1086), Denver (US Airways 445), and San Francisco (Asiana Airlines 214). Airplanes accidents may be rare but when they do occur, passengers seem to increasingly choose materialism over self-preservation.

Explanations as to why vary. Some say that in the chaos of a crash, passengers can only think of exiting the airplane as they would if all were well. This means taking your personal belongings - perfume and purses included - with you. Others argue that those belongings form a crucial part of our identity, a psychological life jacket that is too precious to leave behind, no matter the risks involved.

A government study finds that 50% of passengers try to grab their bags during an emergency. This explains why airplane evacuation times frequently exceed the time it takes for a fire to fill the cabin. Fining carry-on obsessed passengers has been floated as one solution. Stiff penalties would - the reasoning goes - act as a warning and force others to think twice about copying such behavior. But this ‘fix’ invites its own set of problems. Here’s why.

Carry-on bags can easily block escape routes or far worse, puncture escape chutes. This makes lugging them during an emergency a recipe for disaster. Penalizing passengers who do so is a no brainer. But can the same be said about someone who carries a set of keys down the escape chute? How about an asthma inhaler? Or a book? How large does an item have to be before its carriage during an evacuation can be considered a danger to the evacuation?

Moreover, should carry-on size be the sole determinant of evacuation danger? What about carry-on weight? Or composition? After all, sliding down the escape chute with a bottle of duty-free liquor can impede an evacuation just as much as a carry-on suitcase. Probably more so given that those bottles are breakable and flammable!

The FAA advises passengers to leave all carry-on items behind during an emergency. Safety briefing cards in airline seat pockets say so as well.  As do flight attendants during pre-flight announcements. But what counts as carry-on? And what should when it comes to pursuing civil penalties?

On these questions, there have been few answers. One thing is certain however. Continuing along this path risks transforming a survivable accident into an unsurvivable one. The aircraft involved in Friday’s incident was carrying 6,400 gallons of fuel and 161 passengers – all of whom survived. It can carry 16,000 gallons of fuel and more than 200 passengers. Simply put, it helped that the airplane was not full of fuel and passengers. If it were, the outcome may have been tragically different.