Saturday, March 9, 2013

Still Life With Robin: Three Additions to My Vocabulary

 by Peggy Robin

I learn a few things from writing this column. Two weeks ago I wrote about the unexpectedly nerve-wracking experience of not having a cellphone on hand after driving over an unknown object on a dark road (see A helpful reader wrote in to let me know that there's a name for that specific form of anxiety that strikes when you desperately want to use a mobile phone but can't: It's called nomophobia.  It's not a new term, by any means; it was first defined by Urban Dictionary ( in March of 2008.

While consulting Urban Dictionary, I stumbled across two other transportation-related terms that I had not previously known but consider to be useful additions to my vocabulary:

Placebo button. That's the term for the call button that is supposed to bring up the pedestrian walk signal but which, in reality, does nothing at all. In my research of this term, I came across two explanations for the predominance of placebo buttons at our crosswalks. One is that traffic engineers put them there on purpose to make pedestrians feel as if they have some control over how long they have to wait before they can cross the street. The other is that the placebo button, back when it was installed, did indeed affect the timing of the walk signal, but that after intersection signals were upgraded to allow the timing to be programmed by computer (which took place in the 1980s, 90s, and 00s), the formerly useful button lost its purpose -- unless, of course, you consider its psychological function of ameliorating the pedestrian's sense of powerlessness in the face of speeding cars. (The proof that most pedestrian call buttons are placebos is found in this ABC News report from May 2010:  There's some valuable historical background on the placebo button in this New York Times report of February 27, 2004:  

Speaking of things that don't work: There's the passenger brake. That's the imaginary pedal on the floor that the passenger presses when he or she most fervently wishes the driver would slow down or come to a stop. Some passengers try to be surreptitious as they press foot to the floor, preferring the driver to remain unaware that his or her tailgating or pinball style of driving is causing an involuntary braking action over on the passenger side. Other passengers brake with an exaggerated pounding stomp, while also supplying a verbal critique: for example, "Yiiiy - you almost hit that guy!" or "If you were any closer to that taxi, I'd be in the back seat." But, much like the placebo button, the passenger brake rarely has any practical impact. By that I mean, it does not prevent actual impact. The effect that it does have tends to be projected into future trips, rather than on the motion of the car in the present. That is to say, the driver decides never to offer a ride to the passenger-brake user again. Or the converse: The passenger decides never again to get in a car with a driver who induces the need to use the passenger brake.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and on All Life Is Local, on Saturdays.

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