Your brain is what makes broken escalators dangerous

Illustration for article titled Your brain is what makes broken escalators dangerous

Many people have a moment of nervousness when hopping onto a moving escalator. They should feel more nervous when they're getting on a broken one. Climbing on broken escalators invokes a weird dizziness that's literally called the Broken Escalator Effect.


It's strange to hear about other people's neuroses - mostly because I have so many that I find it odd when I run across one I don't have. One anxiety that always missed me was the moment of nerves some people experience when getting on an escalator or moving sidewalk. I step on them without fear, and was surprised to hear that people worry about missing a step or even being dragged into the escalator workings by their clothes.

My uncharacteristic lack of nerves might be why I've never experienced the Broken Escalator Effect, or Broken Escalator Phenomenon. A broken escalator is still perfectly functional as stairs, but often people report a strange feeling of dizziness or vertigo when they try to climb up a stationary escalator. The sense of wrongness is so strong that it becomes physical and they stagger or stumble.


Then again, maybe I've never experienced the effect because of my utterly characteristic lack of coordination. One group of researchers investigated the effect by studying people stepping onto a moving platform. The people stepped on the platform once while it was stationary, twenty times while it was moving, and then again while it was stationary. Each volunteer was told when the platform would move and when it would not, and each volunteer could plainly see it.

There was an obvious difference between each volunteer's boarding hop when the platform was stationary and when it was moving. When the platform was stationary, they moved at their regular walking pace. When it moved they stepped onto it more quickly, so it wouldn't throw them off balance and take their legs out from under them. Neither time was a challenge. But when the platform was stationary again, the volunteers stepped onto the platform more quickly than they did when it was originally stationary, but less quickly than they would if it were moving. Knowing that the platform "should" move made the people move at an unnatural pace. So perhaps people stepping onto a stationary escalator move differently than they would under any other circumstances, and that throws them off-balance.

Do you experience the effect? If not, are there any other situations during which you experience vertigo when the machines around you don't behave as they normally do?

Image: Jakub Halun

[Via The Broken Escalator Phenomenon.]


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I believe the height of the escalator steps is different to regular steps, because they need to be square, i.e. the height and depth of each step must be the same, in order for the mechanism to work. But regular steps can be of shallower height.

This means that when you walk on them they feel a bit more of an effort, and therefore slightly off-kilter.