First, an illustration of what not to do:
Now, can we do better than that? Will good breakfalling technique help?
Sure, I am accident prone, but the worst that I have suffered from any of these mishaps has been the odd graze. My training does not make me invincible -- far from it -- but it works much better than the usual disorganized "panic" response (shown above).
When an untrained person tries to break their fall -- like the unfortunate young skater in the video -- (s)he often tries to extend an arm with the hand bent back. While this is an effective strategy in low impact situations -- e.g. if you are sitting on the floor and lean too far in any direction -- it is disastrous in any significant fall. The wrist bends back too far, and -- if you are really unlucky -- the resulting shock wave can travel up your arm and also snap your collar bone (not shown!).
I believe that most of us learn this "propping" reaction as babies first learn to sit, and they soon discover that propping is an effective method to help them keep seated. It works, but it is not natural, and can be trained out.
Personally, I have used rolling, side, back and forward breakfalling techniques to save me while:
- inline skating -- many times (both while learning and later on)
- tripping over fences
- coming over the handlebars of a bike
- falling down stairs
- slipping over while rushing for a train
Other martial artists that I know have fallen down stairs, off ladders, off motor-bikes and been thrown from cars and survived without breakages.
So, yes, they work.
Breakfalling on concrete
While we usually practice on nice thick mats, I have been asked on occasion to perform a single standing side breakfall on concrete. My arm stings for about half an hour, but it works.
I recall reading once about a hapkido group who practiced their breakfalls on concrete all the time, and went on to develop arthritic spines. True or not, we practice mostly on a padded surface with good reason. So: Don't try this stunt except under qualified supervision.
Getting hit in the head
Finally, another scenario in which you need to get to the ground safely is when you are hit. In reading newspaper reports of fatalities and brain-injuries from getting punched in the head, it is often the case that the majority of the damage is incurred when the victim hits his head on the (hard) ground or curb. This was more-or-less what happened to former Australian cricketer and then Victorian state coach David Hookes.
So, while prevention is better than cure, reliable breakfalling is great insurance!