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Tales of Croc-chewing escalators spread alarm

September 20, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Is the Crocs scare a crock?

The super-popular, brightly colored clog-style shoes are being identified on the Internet and in news reports as so dangerous on escalators that some parents apparently won't let their children wear them anymore.

Although the injury reports are worrying, the focus on Crocs may be deflecting attention from an array of soft shoes that moving stairways like to grab. Sandals and flip-flops, for example, are most commonly snared by escalators in Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority subway stations, which have more escalators than any other U.S. transit system, the authority's David Lacosse said.

"Crocs," he said, are "getting a raw deal."

Crocs Inc. agrees and statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission support the company. The agency said that of the 53 reports in its files over a five-year period about escalator-footwear tangles, Crocs were named in four, with one resulting in an injury.

Crocs over the years have been blamed for various transgressions, from creating static electricity that can disrupt hospital machines (apparently nurses love the shoes) to being unnecessarily ugly.

The company said it knew of no reason that its shoes would be any more susceptible to static electricity than sneakers or other types of footwear that medical professionals favor.

Crocs' popularity may be part of the problem. The Boulder, Colo., company that has sold about 50 million pairs of Crocs since they hit the market in Nov. 2002 called the shoes "completely safe." The fact that Crocs scooped up 5.2% of the industry's "lifestyle casual" market has "struck and surprised" other footwear executives, said Bill Boettge, president of the National Shoe Retailers Assn.

Crocs' sales jumped to $354.7 million last year from $108.6 million in 2005. In the first six months of this year, sales hit $366.3 million.

The company has expanded its product line, with even a limited line of clothing. Celebrity chef Mario Batali, who owns dozens of Crocs, mainly orange, has teamed with the company to produce his signature Bistro model, which will be available this fall, according to his website.

Knockoffs of the rubbery molded shoes are everywhere, and some of them also are getting stuck in escalators.

"The popularity of our shoes has helped draw attention to a long-existing issue that we think is very important -- escalator safety," Crocs spokeswoman Tia Mattson said in an e-mail.

The statistics don't matter much if you've watched an escalator gnaw on your child's shoe.

Maryam Banikarim, chief marketing officer for Univision Communications Inc., was on an airport escalator with her 7-year-old son Nicholas Lerner on Labor Day when he "started screaming bloody murder."

"The side of the escalator is sucking up his shoe and foot at the same time," she said. "It was terrifying." His foot required 10 stitches.

"Shoe entrapments" at the Washington subway system occurred, on average, four or five times a week during the summer and have included a wide range of footwear -- even galoshes and stiletto heels -- but have resulted in no serious injuries, Lacosse said. They involved "flip-flops, sandals, sneakers and, of course, a few Crocs," he said.

Soft-soled shoes can get stuck between the moving steps and the stationary side panel or at the "comb plate," a section at the top or bottom of the escalator that looks like "alligator teeth," Lacosse said.

The transit system has posted warnings that include a picture of an alligator (not, Lacosse pointed out, a crocodile). "We're trying to avoid the Crocs issue altogether," he said.

American Girl Place stores posted safety warnings suggesting that parents take the elevator if they or their children are wearing "Crocs, flip-flops or similar footwear." The signs were posted after "a few minor incidents involving Crocs and other soft shoes," spokeswoman Julie Parks said.

Crocs have been the culprit in most of the seven shoe vs. escalator incidents at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport since May 1, according to Roy Springer, operations manager for the company that runs parts of the airport. In one case, a 3-year-old boy wearing Crocs had to be hospitalized after suffering a deep gash along the top of his toes, he said.

There's no safer transportation than an escalator, according to a spokeswoman for the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Alabama. But you still need to be careful when riding them.

"The fact is," she said, "they are complex pieces of equipment with moving parts."

--

leslie.earnest@latimes.com

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