Soft Soles Fall Fashion Victim to Escalators

Soft-soled shoes such as flip-flops, sandals and Crocs, shown above, can get caught in the hard teeth of escalators and have caused problems at Metro stations this summer. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

A squish-squish enters the subway station. Its Crocs-wearing owner walks toward the escalator, an effortless ride revealing itself as each step rises into place. But there are teeth in those steps, made of steel even, and if the rider isn't careful, the meeting of the popular footwear and escalator won't go well.

The soft material is no match for the teeth of the escalator's top step, and the clunky, resin clogs will end up mangled, maybe ripped in two.

Crocs, flip-flops, sandals and other soft-soled shoes that get caught in the hard teeth of escalators are causing an increasing number of problems at Metro this summer. Twenty-five objects were stuck in escalators last month, most of them "shoe entrapments," officials said. On a particularly bad day this month, a shoe was stuck at a Huntington Station escalator at 11 a.m., one was wedged at Metro Center in the afternoon and another was ensnared at Farragut West at 6:30 p.m.

"We've had an alarming increase of incidents of those types of shoes being stuck in the escalator," said Dave Lacosse, who oversees Metro's 588 escalators and 244 elevators and said the problems started last summer. "We were going from weeks with [no incidents], to one now and then, and now, especially in the summer, as high as three and four a week is common."

So far, the injuries on Metro's escalators have been minor as people have been able to pull their feet away from their trapped shoes.

"Passengers have been able to escape from the shoe with maybe a scratch," said Lacosse, who keeps a big box in his office filled with Crocs, sneakers, flip-flops, and stiletto shoes that have been pulled from the bowels of escalators.

Just the same, with millions of visitors coming to Washington and more escalators than any transit system except Tokyo's, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said he is considering issuing a warning to customers. "We can't prohibit what people wear," he said. "But I'm going to recommend that we put out some kind of safety notice."

The meeting of shoe and escalator can cause problems for passengers because it forces escalators out of service. When something gets caught in an escalator, a safety switch turns it off automatically. Metro dispatches an inspector to make sure the escalator wasn't malfunctioning, remove the object and turn the system back on.

"It could take anywhere from an hour to half a day," Lacosse said. If the shoe has caused damage, it might take longer to repair.

Although Metro riders have escaped with minor injuries, there have been numerous reports of Croc- and flip-flop-related injuries elsewhere.

On April 26, a 3-year-old girl wearing Crocs got her shoe caught in an escalator at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and had to have two toes partially amputated, according to airport spokesman Herschel Grangent. On June 8, a 3-year-old boy wearing plastic sandals was cut severely on his right foot after his shoe became trapped in another airport escalator, Grangent said.

In November, a 2-year-old's right big toe was ripped off in a Singapore mall after her rubber clog -- a Crocs imitation -- got stuck in an escalator, according to news reports.

Simply wearing soft-soled shoes doesn't guarantee escalator problems. Generally, footwear gets stuck in elevators when "the weight of the person on the soles of the shoes pushes the soft foam into the step treads," of escalators, Lacosse said. If riders aren't paying attention, shoes can get pulled into the plate at the top or bottom of escalators.

In September, after news reports about escalator accidents involving Crocs, a company official contacted the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Mobile, Ala., according to the group's executive director.

The company agreed to design a tag inside its shoes and set up kiosks in malls to inform people about escalator safety and to refer them to the safety foundation, said Barbara Allen, the foundation's executive director.

"It didn't happen," she said. "After the issue subsided, they just wouldn't get back in touch with us."

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Crocs Inc. said its footwear was safe. Asked about the shoe tag and mall kiosks, spokeswoman Jessica Packard said the Niwot, Colo.-based company has determined "that the best way to raise awareness is to continue to endorse the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation and its education and prevention efforts."

The company manufactures about 6 million pairs of Crocs a month, she said. "The popularity of our shoes has helped draw attention to a long-existing issue that we think is very important -- escalator safety," Packard said in the statement. The company said the majority of escalator incidents result from improper use or poor maintenance.

Metro's Lacosse said he was not aware of any shoes getting caught because of malfunctioning escalators. "It is really a behavior issue," he said.

Few passengers were aware of the potential dangers of soft-soled footwear.

Judy Bishop, visiting from the Memphis area, had two grandchildren with her, including Robbie Bishop, 10, who was wearing dark green Crocs.

"We haven't had any trouble with them," she said as they waited for a Red Line train on a recent day at Metro Center. But she said she would be more careful, especially since her grandchildren "are doing all sorts of strange things on the escalators."

Even when their shoes get mauled, most riders are too attached to them to let go. Some even ask for retrieved ones to be left with station managers so they can get them the next day.

Used to be that the damaged shoes were brought to Lacosse's office, where he kept them as mementos. Alas, these days, "most of the customers want their shoe back," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company