Sometimes known as "escalaphobia," the fear of escalators is surprisingly common. According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, over 35,000 escalators in the United States and Canada move 245 million people per day. Yet despite their frequent usage, escalators are commonly cited as a feared object. The fear of escalators may be mild or severe, and the reasons behind the fear range from misunderstandings about their construction to the perception of moving quickly.
Any fear that is based on a legitimate medical concern is, by definition, not a phobia. Many apparent cases of escalaphobia actually fall into this category. Medical vertigo, balance difficulties, a lack of depth perception, vision troubles and sensory issues make many people reluctant to use an escalator. For this reason, it is always important to see a doctor to rule out any physical causes of a possible escalator phobia.
The fear of escalators is often, though not always, related to another phobia. Bathmophobia, or the fear of stairs and slopes, often encompasses escalators as well. Bathmophobia sufferers are afraid of simply being in the presence of a slope or a set of stairs, even if they are not expected to climb or descend. The constantly moving metal steps of an escalator could be even more terrifying. Climacophobia, or the fear of climbing, may also be to blame. Those with climacophobia are perfectly comfortable being around stairs and slopes, but become fearful when expected to actually use them. Acrophobia, the fear of heights, and illyngophobia, the fear of vertigo, are also possible culprits.
Many phobias are triggered by previous negative experiences with the feared object. If you ever caught a shoelace in an escalator, slipped while getting on or off, or lost your balance when the steps and the handrails were mistimed, you might be at increased risk for developing an escalator phobia. The negative experience need not have happened to you. If you witnessed a fall in person or even on TV, or if a parent or close relative had the same fear, you might also be more likely to develop escalaphobia.
Big, heavy machines are a mystery to many people. Escalators are generally located right out in the open, where it seems that all the moving parts are visible. Yet the escalator's movement does not seem to make sense at first glance. Numerous myths have developed over more than a century of use, many of which make escalators seem more dangerous than they are.
According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, some people believe that escalators move more quickly than normal walking speed, contain parts that can reach out and grab people, or even that the steps could somehow flatten out and send the riders flying. The Foundation assures readers that none of these myths are true, yet legends persist.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that it is entirely possible to be injured on an escalator. Popular urban legend website Snopes.com verified dozens of incidents in which children's shoes got stuck in moving parts of an escalator, leading to serious injuries. Years ago, my grandmother sat on the jury for a case in which a mother sued a department store when her child's arm was caught underneath the moving handrail of the store's escalator.
Yet virtually all of these accidents are attributable to rider error. In the case my grandmother heard, numerous witnesses stated that the child was playing on the escalator while the mother shopped and, at the time of the accident, he was not following escalator safety procedures.
Like any machine, it is possible for an escalator to malfunction. No activity, including riding an escalator, is entirely risk-free. However, the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation maintains a list of safety rules that, when properly followed, minimize the potential risks to nearly zero. The rules include always facing forward and using the handrail, supervising small children, wearing securely attached footwear, and not transporting rolling carts or strollers on escalators.
For many people, simply familiarizing themselves with escalator safety procedures is enough to combat the fear. Learn how escalators work, how best to prevent accidents, and what to do should an emergency occur. Be sure to teach your children how to safely use escalators as well.
If your escalator phobia is severe, consider seeking professional assistance. Although elevators and stairs are reasonable alternatives, there is no guarantee that these items will be available everywhere you go. Rather than limiting your movements, consider beating the fear altogether.
Like most phobias, escalaphobia generally responds well to a variety of brief therapy treatments. One of the most popular is cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which you will learn to replace your fearful thoughts about escalators with healthier messages. Battling a phobia is hard work, but the rewards are extremely worthwhile.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation: Escalator Safety. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.eesf.org/education/public_2/escalator.html
Snopes.com: Danger Afoot. May 20, 2008. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/parental/escalator.asp