If you live in the U.S., you’ve doubtless seen signs on most escalators that list various safety warnings, including “No Bare Feet.” Makes sense, right? Most people would take that for granted, with all those gnarly looking moving parts, those teeth that open up at the top only to bite down fast and hard at the bottom could chew up a bare foot in seconds. As long as you’re not barefooted when going up and down on that mechanical monster, you’re safe. No, the sign doesn’t exactly say that, but that’s the message it sends.
But the ironic thing is, just about every documented injury on escalators has involved shoes, not bare feet. In fact, there have been a number of articles in the media in the last few years about various forms of footwear getting caught in escalator mechanisms and seriously injuring the wearers.
For example, an article in the Orange County Register a couple of years ago points out a rash of injuries that have occurred, mainly to children, in a popular Southern California mall. From the article:
The then 6-year-old boy screamed as his foot twisted in the grinding steel, his tennis shoe half-swallowed by the mechanical stairs.
It’s not only tennis shoes that are problematic for riding escalators. Another article reports that the very popular Crocs have been found to be so dangerous that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has warned against wearing them on escalators, though they avoided specifically using the brand name “Crocs.” More details and other links on this same issue are pointed out here in “Atlanta Injury Law & Civil Litigation Blog.”
So, what does all this have to do with banning bare feet? Good question, because there have never been any documented records of a bare foot ever being injured on an escalator. The only court case involving escalator injuries that SBL (Society for Barefoot Living) members have been able to find that even mentions bare feet is Hunt v. City Stores, Inc., 387 So.2d 585 (La. 1980). Here again, a child was injured when his tennis shoes got caught in the escalator mechanism. The court stated:
[Roger Harris of Otis] said that the inconspicuous warning signs which caution against bare feet are the only ones used by Otis…. Despite knowledge of the danger presented to children in tennis shoes, Otis had not warned of that hazard.
The notion of banning bare feet on escalators seems to be popular only in the United States. To my knowledge, no such signs appear on escalators in Europe or other parts of the world.
When I was in Fiji a few years ago, the only escalator I saw, which was at the Nadi airport, had a sign that only warned against long skirts. It also advised to not put your feet near the edges on either side of the moving steps and to hold children’s hands. Nothing about bare feet. Bare feet are quite common in Fiji anyway, so I think most people just assume a barefooted person knows how to be careful without being told. (Would that folks had such an attitude here in this country!)
And a couple of years ago when I was in Victoria, BC, Canada, there was a sign on an escalator in a mall that read: “No carts. No strollers,” plus a pictograph depicting the same rules. Not a word about bare feet.
Someone also told me about seeing a sign on an escalator in Hong Kong that read: “Escalator users wearing sandals: Please beware of the edges of steps and mind your toes.” Nothing about bare feet.
In the U.S., the signs are generally placed there, not by the store or place of business in which the escalator is located, but by the escalator manufacturer. It would appear that such dire warnings are the result of (1) the perception, albeit greatly exaggerated, of increased litigious occurrences in the U.S., (2) ill-conceived hyper-safety concerns based more and more on protecting people from themselves, (3) picking an easy target (bare feet), because who’s going to argue with that? – nobody goes barefooted any more because everybody knows it’s so “dangerous.” But as long as the manufacturer warns at least against “something,” and that “something” is something that very few people would be doing anyway, it probably thinks such a warning gives it some protection from, or at least a defense against, potential lawsuits. After all, it made the effort. Can you imagine the reaction if they were realistic about actually preventing injuries (rather than an ill-conceived attempt to just avoid lawsuits) and posted signs reading “No Shoes”? Or even “No Children” would go a long way to stop these injuries from happening.
Of course, one might surmise that no bare feet have ever been injured on an escalator precisely because of the warning signs. No such conclusion could be logically reached. People do ride escalators barefooted, in many parts of the world as I mentioned above, and also in the U.S. I have been a barefooter for many years, and I always ride escalators barefooted. And that includes those long moving walkways common in airports that are similar to escalators. Other full-time barefooters, such as my fellow members of the SBL, regularly ride them barefooted as well, sign or no sign. One member told me he has actually let his bare feet slide onto the teeth at the bottom or top with no problem; though it may look scary, he has found there’s really little or no danger of getting feet caught there. The most dangerous area is along the sides as the steps move up or down. The whole key to being safe on an escalator is being aware of where your feet are at all times. And that’s pretty easy when you’re barefooted – not so easy when your ability to feel the surface under your feet is blocked by some kind of footwear covering your feet.
I think the biggest problem with escalators is the false sense of security people may get from the signs that are placed on them, especially in the U.S. “No Bare Feet” implies that bare feet are not safe, but shoes are. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only that, the Peltzman effect certainly comes into play here as well. From Wikipedia:
The Peltzman effect is the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation.
As to relative safety, I firmly believe that bare feet are much safer than shoes on an escalator. The reasons are that:
- barefooted people can feel and are aware of where their feet are at all times,
- barefooted people are acutely aware that the moving parts of an escalator do have the potential of doing damage to feet, and
- barefooted people aren’t lulled into the false sense of security that a shod person might get as a result of seeing the “No Bare Feet” signs, and so are extra careful.