If you have ever taken any sort of train you have seen that foreboding red device, the emergency brake.  When do we use it?  The New York Times’ City Room blog recently featured a video answering just that question.  The video–“Emergency Brake”–is by Casey Neistat, who risked arrest and prop limbs in the making of his production.

The basic moral of the story is that the emergency brake should never really be used while a train is in motion.  Do not use in the case of a fire, you’ll burn.  Do not use in the case of a medical emergency, the person will be caught in greater peril.  Do not use in case of a crime, you’re trapped with a criminal (probably armed and now angry).  The emergency brake should be saved for those times when the train is in the station and somebody is in danger, either caught in the door or fallen onto the tracks.

As Neistat clearly illustrates this a is a problem of signage and communication.  What the agencies think of as clear communication just has the average commuter confused.  Money quote from the Gothamist:

According to the Times, straphangers should pull the brake if “someone gets caught between the train’s closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate.” In other circumstances, pulling the cord could make it harder for help to arrive. That’s what happened on a D train last November when a straphanger fatally stabbed another commuter and frightened passengers pulled the brake. The agency has told Gothamist that when a straphanger pulls the cord, it brings the train to an immediate stop using compressed-air brakes. The train crew must notify a control center, which in turn alerts police. The NYPD then advises the control center on how to respond, and that message is relayed to the train crew. It can take between 5 and 15 minutes for the crew to reset the braking function and get the train moving again.

Commuters pull the emergency brake about 1,000 times per year when there is no clear emergency. In 2009, the agency recorded 15 instances in which straphangers pulled the cord to respond to an emergency, like a sick rider, the paper notes. Some subway riders, like Brooklyn resident Zev David Deans, said the agency should more clearly outline when straphangers should, and shouldn’t, use the emergency brake. “They could put it in big letters — ‘Pull in case of …’ — and then the few reasons why,” he said. “If it just says ’emergency,’ you’re going to pull it for any reason.” An MTA NYC Transit spokesman said the current instructions are more than sufficient: “We think that it is clear.” (bold mine)

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