Amanda Ripley

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Pull in Case of (Some) Emergencies

24th Jan 2010 posted in General

When a man was stabbed to death early one morning on a NYC subway, a nervous passenger scrambled to pull the emergency brake, immediately stopping the train.  Another example of an average citizen averting a disaster?

Not exactly.

The New York Times reported this week that the emergency brake is not to be pulled during an emergency. Well, actually, the emergency brake should only be pulled during certain kinds of emergencies, and it’s up to you to know what constitutes an emergency and what doesn’t. In this particular instance, the immediate stopping of the train hindered the arrival of police.

You have to look for it, but New York City Transit’s website does provide an explanation:

“Use the emergency brake cord only when the motion of the subway presents an imminent danger to life and limb. Otherwise, do not activate the emergency brake cord, especially in a tunnel. Once the emergency brake cord is pulled, the brakes have to be reset before the train can move again, which reduces the options for dealing with the emergency.”

If you looked at this explanation before riding the subway, you might know you shouldn’t pull the cord for any little thing, but how are you supposed to know when something poses imminent danger to life and limb? Even the wording of that sentence is weak, considering a myriad of things could pose an imminent danger to life (and also to limb).

If the “emergency, but not all emergencies” brake cord explanation doesn’t make sense when I’m curled up on my couch, how can I be expected to know what to do when I’ve just been through something traumatic?  The brain doesn’t function well under stress, and we can’t be expected to instantly differentiate between different types of emergencies. Perhaps it would be better for the brake system to have an automated audio warning that goes off when you open a casing around the brake—reminding you that pulling it will leave the train stranded on the tracks.  Or maybe not.  But surely this is not the hardest problem humanity has ever overcome.  The bigger challenge seems to be that emergency plans are not written for the way our brains work (And the problem is hardly unique to the NYC transit system.  If you want to be prepared on Washington, DC’s metro, you’ve got to watch an animated video (only if you have flash, though) before you leave the house.).

Unfortunately, NYC Transit doesn’t see any confusion, telling the Times that the explanation is clear, even when the general public has no clue. The Times reports:

“Of 20 straphangers interviewed last month at the 14th Street-Eighth Avenue station, about half said that they had no idea when the brake should or should not be used. Those who knew that the brake should not be pulled in most situations seemed at a loss to explain when exactly it would be appropriate.”

From their lackluster response, NYC Transit doesn’t seem to think the pubic can do better, so why try.  And maybe that’s the real emergency.