How to Survive an Elevator Free Fall


If you've ever watched a disaster movie, listened to that old Aerosmith single or nervously glanced at a maximum load placard, you've probably pondered what you would do if you were ever trapped in a falling elevator.

Statistically, elevators are quite safe, as long as their safety features function properly and passengers remain fully inside the car. Most elevator-related injuries and fatalities happen to construction or maintenance workers, followed by people who fall down shafts or are crushed after being caught in elevator doors or between floors.

Modern elevators incorporate safety features to help prevent fatal falls. Traction elevators, which move cars up and down using steel cables, pulleys and counterweights, have a speed-sensing governor. If the car zips downward too quickly, the governor activates brakes on the elevator's travel rails. Traction elevators also locate switches along the elevator shaft, which detect cars as they pass and initiate slowdowns and stops at the appropriate points in their travel, whether during a normal stop or because the car is moving too fast. Each of the four to eight steel cables in a traction elevator is strong enough by itself to hold the car.

Hydraulic Elevator, which lift and lower elevator cars using a piston jack similar to the one auto mechanics use to lift automobiles, generally lack the safety features of traction elevators (unless the builders install special aftermarket safety brakes). Although they are unlikely to fail, if they do, they are more likely to fail catastrophically than traction elevators. On the plus side, it's impractical to build a hydraulic lift higher than six stories, so you're only going to fall 60 to 90 feet. Then again, that means you'll hit the basement doing a brisk 48 to 53 mph. Ouch.

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