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Is technology just pushing our buttons?

Reports of placebo buttons abound but Oklahoma City seems to be staying away from placebo buttons.
by Heather Warlick Modified: October 3, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: October 2, 2013

Hot at work? Adjust the thermostat. In a hurry to get downstairs? Push the elevator's close door button. Need to cross the street? Push the pedestrian crosswalk button, 10 times if necessary.

However, like the Staples “easy” button, some of these buttons may actually be “placebo buttons,” doing nothing but delivering the pleasing sensation that you've taken power over a couple seconds of your day.

These buttons have been under the scrutiny of the media recently, with stories saying that crosswalk buttons, open door and close door elevator buttons and even office thermostats are often nonfunctioning.

However, Oklahoma City seems to be staying away from placebo buttons.

For example, Stuart Chai, city traffic engineer for Oklahoma City, said all of the city's approximately 750 traffic pedestrian crossing signals at intersections that include crosswalks are fully functioning, with the exception of any that may be in need of repair.

“If we've got buttons that are out there, they work. We don't have any placebos. You press a button, you're going to activate the pedestrian phases for that intersection,” Chai said.

That's a far cry from findings from a 2010 ABC investigation that found only one functioning crosswalk button in Austin, Texas; Gainesville, Fla., and Syracuse, NY.

The New York Times reported in 2004 that the city had deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals.

Many Oklahoma City crosswalks include “accessible pedestrian signals,” Chai said, that comply to guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, with auditory and visual guidance for the hearing or vision impaired.

“As we make modifications to intersections, we make the ADA required improvements,” Chai said.

The open door and close door buttons in elevators may be a slightly different story. In many elevators built after about 1990, the buttons are primarily intended for use by emergency personnel and often don't function as you might expect, confirmed Steve Schmidt, vice president of American Elevator Co. in Oklahoma City.

“That is often true. Especially with newer systems that can be configured with different options,” Schmidt said. Often, elevator doors are set to remain open for about five seconds to allow passengers on and off. In some configurations, the door close button will shorten that time. The open door and close door buttons do have extended functionality for emergency workers. To access these functions, a key is often required.

“A common mode in an elevator is called independent service. That mode is for building personnel to operate the elevator under their control in a manner so the elevator stops answering all calls, it stands with the doors open until they hold the door close button,” Schmidt said. “The buttons are also always used in fire service operations.”

The elevator doesn't care if you're in a hurry. In most configurations, “the door close button is not going to hurry it any faster,” Schmidt said.

But if the elevator itself is in demand, that could speed up its functioning, Schmidt said. And the door open button should always work, he reassures.

And those controversial office thermostats? When you adjust the temperature in your office or cubicle farm, is the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system really going to respond to your request? A 2003 survey published in Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News stated that 72 percent of climate control experts surveyed admitted to installing dummy thermostats.

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by Heather Warlick
Life & Style Editor
Since graduating from University of Central Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Staff Writer Heather Warlick has written stories for The Oklahoman's Life section. Her beats have included science, health, home and garden, family,...
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