Elevator Dangers and Leaky Abstractions

Wednesday, November 13, 2013
By: Matthew Doucette

A fatal elevator accident and my thoughts on it, based on an email exchange with my brother Jason, since he now uses elevators everyday at Amazon:

Fatal elevator accident.

The video above is not gross to watch, but worth watching to see if you could have gotten out of this situation if it happened to you. The elevator moves as the girl is stepping onto it. Her legs get caught and crushed between the elevator and the shaft wall. This is what happens whenever you read about someone being stuck between the elevator and the wall. It is insane.

The video above becomes more gross the more you think about it. The elevator stops at another floor. How much space is there between the gap of floor of the elevator and the floor it has stopped at?

It is worth knowing that the elevator is a 'leaky abstraction', just like the boarding ​of boats and airplanes. You are really in a moment of danger whenever you do any of these things. There was an accident in our hometown years ago, where the boarding ramp to one of our ships fell and someone got hurt bad enough that they lost their leg. Anyone on the ramp was helpless to save themselves from injury.

I always remember a friend at Acadia, the university I attended, speak about a friend who saw someone climb out of an elevator stuck between floors, and it started to move and it cut the person in half. The witnesses were traumatized because each group of people only saw half of a body. I do not know if this particular story is true, but there are similar accidents recorded which are.

Elevators are powerful and heavy. The last one I was in could lift 2,000 lbs under code, which means it could lift much more. It can easily move a car. A body is no match for that type of force. The elevator doors that re-open when they close onto a person provides a false sense of security, as if the body can stop an elevator. It simply cannot.

This danger is abstracted away with the retracting doors and the hidden mechanics.

The way most people die in an elevator accident are workers working in the shafts. Then next most common is people climbing off a stuck elevator and either falling down the shaft or getting stuck when it starts to move.

People use elevators everyday. Some move fast and some are slow. The slow ones are better, as you have time to react if it were to move. Could you have saved yourself from the incident in the video above? I believe myself to be athletic, and I do not believe I would have escaped. The slow moving ones, like the elevator on the Titanic would be fine if it malfunctioned, as you have time to jump out of the way.

The accident above is horrible because it looks like she did nothing wrong. It moved when the door was open. It was likely a safety guard that was not set back after maintenance had to shut it off.

Even the laws of the road are leaky abstractions. Just as the steering wheel is to the movement of the car, it leaks when the road is wet or slippery. We always looks at traffic when crossing roads. We are not use to the big cities. It doesn't matter if the light is green. The Oculus Rift developer died because the abstraction leaked.

With elevators, imagine if the abstraction was not hidden, and you got to see all the workings of it. Some buildings do this with style to show how cool it is, but even then they hide the gears and whatnot. So I mean imagine if they show everything, all the gears and grease and weights and cables and even the sound. Then, would you take the elevator or the stairs right next to it? I suppose it depends how many floors up you have to go each day. If it were only 4 floors, I would assume most people would use stairs.

What is the point of an elevator? At one point it was to be luxurious. It is not a good system when you think of it: You are in a shaft and there's no floor beneath your floor. The reality of it is frightening.

Even in the case of fallen elevators that have a spring at the bottom to bounce it, there have been cases where the cables and equipment flip around and crush everyone.

Something to think about...

Read more about leaky abstractions, as it relates to software development (but please try to associate it with real life events too), here: "The Law of Leaky Abstractions" by Joel Spolsky.


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2019/Jan/05 Productivity Articles & Videos
2018/Aug/08 Motivational Articles
2016/Jul/21 Practicing Self-Care as an Entrepreneur
2016/Jul/06 Ego is the Enemy
2015/Apr/17 Powerful Education Videos
2013/Nov/13 Elevator Dangers and Leaky Abstractions
2013/Aug/27 Take Risks
2013/Feb/21 To Do List Template For Everyone
2013/Jan/27 Aaron Swartz
2013/Jan/12 Honoring Seumas McNally
2007/Jan/21 Get Rich Books and Greed


About the Author: I am Matthew Doucette of Xona Games, an award-winning indie game studio that I founded with my twin brother. We make intensified arcade-style retro games. Our business, our games, our technology, and we as competitive gamers have won prestigious awards and received worldwide press. Our business has won $190,000 in contests. Our games have ranked from #1 in Canada to #1 in Japan, have become #1 best sellers in multiple countries, have won game contests, and have held 3 of the top 5 rated spots in Japan of all Xbox LIVE indie games. Our game engines have been awarded for technical excellence. And we, the developers, have placed #1 in competitive gaming competitions -- relating to the games we make. Read about our story, our awards, our games, and view our blog.